The English electro-soul outfit Zero 7 have been making lush, oppressively tasteful shoe-store jazz since 1999, that post–Moon Safari moment when hipsters across the globe realized the value of make-out music that didn’t come from their parents’ vinyl collections. One result of the duo’s rise to popularity: the birth of hundreds of precious hipster babies — children born into lives filled with designer sneakers, Marc Jacobs onesies, and aerodynamic strollers that cost more than a Kia Sedona.
Since neither Henry Binns nor Sam Hardaker is a singer anyone cares much to hear, the duo’s ascent has also produced a small fleet of Zero 7–branded vocalists, three of whom have branched out with new solo albums that demonstrate the durability of the Zero 7 model. The best and highest-profile of these releases is Sia’s Colour the Small One, which actually isn’t that new at all: the native Australian, who headlines the Paradise April 19, first issued the album Down Under and in Great Britain back in 2004, a year before her “Breathe Me” was featured in the final episode of Six Feet Under and American interest picked up enough for Astralwerks to license the disc for a US release this past January.
You can hear a concession to American ears on the new version of Small One in the form of “Sea Shells,” a bonus track that capably replicates the damaged whimsy of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. Other extras include a devilishly funky remix of “Breathe Me” by British beatmaster Four Tet, who tricks out the song’s sumptuous melancholy with echoes of War’s “Low Rider,” of all things. But the main attraction is still the original album itself, a thing of subtle beauty in which Sia drapes her sensual morning-after vocals over arrangements that prove tasteful doesn’t have to mean sterile.
Although Binns and Hardaker regularly employ lots of acoustic instruments in their productions, Small One is a more organic affair than a Zero 7 album; most of the tracks are built on acoustic guitar and shuffling percussion, and there are traces of accordion and glockenspiel throughout. The rootsy sounds complement Sia’s voice like expensive leather against overpriced denim, and the relaxed vibe seems to free her emotions. In “Sweet Potato” and “The Bully” (written with Beck), she allows herself a small smile — a welcome gesture in the world of chill-out music, where a sense of humor is often seen as a threat to the listener’s calm.
London-based Mozez, who sang the title track from Zero 7’s Simple Things, isn’t afraid to risk disrupting that calm either, though he doesn’t do it with jokes. Born Osmond Wright in Jamaica, Mozez is an R&B dude who aims to emulate the passionate pronouncements of old-school lovermen like Marvin Gaye and Al Green. On his solo debut, So Still (Apace), he collaborates with a handful of skilled knob twirlers (including Binns) for a set of steady-burning slow jams. One of the most memorable is the opener, “Feel Free,” which he wrote and recorded with Guy Sigsworth, Imogen Heap’s partner in Frou Frou. Over a swinging synth hook and a sonar-ping beat, he dispenses solid advice for young lovers: “Be young, be happy, live long.”