ZERO 7 at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Monday (May 24). $22.50. 416-466-0313, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
With minimal media attention and negligible radio play, Zero 7 have somehow made the leap from arty studio project to bankable mainstream threat, steering clear of profile-boosting celebrity collabos and tabloid scandals along the way. In fact, the mild-mannered production duo of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker have maintained an unusually low profile while Zero 7 evolved from a production assistants' pastime - creating darkly entrancing soundtracks for non-existent suspense films - into a touring 12-piece soul-jazz orchestra with briskly selling albums to support.
The brilliantly constructed When It Falls (Warner) disc, benefiting from the superb vocal input of Sia Furler, Sophie Barker, Mozez and Tina Dico (appearing at the El Mocambo June 15), is the crowning achievement of Zero 7's current incarnation. While the new compositions still show the influence of Charles Stepney's forward-looking Rotary Connection psych-soul experiments that helped shaped their Simple Things debut, they've graduated to a new level of refinement.
"Charles Stepney is a legend, and the music of Rotary Connection means a lot to us," concedes Binns from his London flat. "It was in Portland that we were given the first Rotary Connection album and that was right before we did Simple Things, so I guess it must've rubbed off.
"Everyone has their inspirations. Lately, I've been getting into Joni Mitchell. That period where folk met jazz in the 70s is very appealing to me right now."
What proved even more inspiring for Binns and Hardaker was performing Zero 7's music with a band. At some point a light bulb flashed on, prompting the professional studio technicians to rethink their songwriting process.
"For guys like us, who are used to working in the studio, suddenly being surrounded by a group of musicians, including a really good drummer, made the idea of going over to a sampler to program a beat seem very... umm... naff.
"We definitely took a more conventional approach to composing music for the new album. It was about putting together a few chords with a singer rather than Sam and I just slapping together these mad pieces of music, which is what we did on Simple Things. I suppose we have become more traditional songwriters."
The way Binns describes Zero 7's progress, you'd think they just started coming up with tunes by trial and error. But actually our man Binns has developed a reputation as a serious song fixer in certain circles.
It's not something he likes to brag about, but he's credited as co-writer on the new Free Me album, by Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton. Evidently, Bunton and manager Simon Fuller, who funded the recording, were impressed by Binns's ghostwriting work for television cuties S Club 7. The man clearly knows his kiddie pop.
"Oh my god," titters Binns uneasily. "You've done your homework. But, hey, I like a cheesy pop tune as much as the next guy. There's a certain craft to writing songs in those circumstances."
Being locked in a room with the former Spice Girl sounds like a surefire recipe for comedy, yet Binns is diplomatic about the experience.
"Emma doesn't pretend to be anything but what she is, which I found refreshing. She knows her limitations. But I don't want to take anything away from the girl - she's definitely got some skills.
"I don't want to speak out of turn but I felt the album shouldn't have been concentrated so much on a young audience. There's such a huge gulf between the youth and adult market now. But that's a whole different story."