HER NAME IS SIA. She is one of the most promising singers to emerge on the music scene in the last few years. And Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., she was one of two featured performers of the British musical act Zero Seven. The couple standing behind me didn't know exactly what to make of her. "She's, um, quirky," said the man. "Yeah," replied his date.
Quirky, however, is a serious understatement for this hilarious, audacious, unbridled singer. She talks half nonsense into the microphone, her funny-girl cheeks always bunched up by a great moon-sliver of teeth, and then with barely a pause she busts out a song with a voice the size of houses, buildings, the streets, and the neighborhood. One wonders if this is what is what it was like to see Bjork when she was still with the Sugar Cubes or, for an odd pairing, maybe a young, rascally Natalie Maines before she became important. It was that kind of thing: power and personality and a singular stage presence without any forewarning.
Zero Seven, a wonderfully eclectic band started by a couple of recording engineers looking to experiment in techno music, has become a sometime home for a string of terrific vocalists, including Tina Dico, the soulful Mozes, and now singer-songwriter Jose Gonzales (who opened the show to much applause), whose careers have received a significant boost from the association. Although the band's founders, Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns, seem to be as inspired as any musical duo by the potential for new combinations of sounds, tracks, and rhythms in the modern recording studio, they have emerged as great champions of the oldest musical instrument around, the human voice.
Zero Seven's sound is sometimes described simply as "chill music" for its great atmospheric quality, but the band's previous albums have a fairly gloomy tendency as well. Not for nothing did their beautiful but downbeat "In the Waiting Line" appear on the celebrated soundtrack for that (overrated) bummer of a Zach Braff movie, Garden State. Sia, too, on her exceptional solo album Color the Small One, is full of shudders and moans, and is most perfect when in a lover-save-me-now kind of desperation. With their recent album--and certainly with their live show, in which Sia is the dominating presence--Zero Seven has, however, proven it can be zany and lighthearted as well.
Sia, wearing a tight-fitting ,white-with-black stripe dress that might have been stolen from the unguarded closet of some '80s New Wave act, danced with pajama-party abandon even when sidelined for a set of Jose Gonzales tracks. She was not the only one tearing the rug. Keyboardist Eddie Stevens geeked out like an eighth-grade science nerd after one too many orange sodas during "Seeing Things." The show's mood and form was more jam party than anything else, especially as Zero Seven rolled out its disco-inspired instrumental works with any number of instruments picked up and put down.
But the heart of the concert was Sia's performance of "Distractions" from Zero Seven's first album Simple Things. Her voice goes into a weird though affecting tremble in its quiet, breathier moments, but when Sia goes for full power, as she did here, her voice is gorgeous and gigantic and about as moving an example of pop singing as one can find. Her eyes even seem to turn to discs as if the voice has forgotten the body, the sail ignoring its ship.
Afterwards the audience roared its approval, and Sia made a silly heart shape with her fingers, saying her love was for the audience. Childish gestures were, however, but one course in a varied feast. On "This Fine Social Scene" and "Throw It All Away," the Australian singer showed she could be a light touch, then jaunty and even controlled.
The Zero Seven ethic has much to recommend it, as music appreciation seems to be its first principle. Like Moby's first album or the albums of the band Gomez, so much of what you hear appears to be driven by an almost amateur love of sound that seems entirely innocent, given the elementary viciousness of the music business.
Zero Seven calls its music electronica, but then, because of the not-quite multiple personality disorder brought on by its welcome touting of great singers such as Sia, it lends its powers to many other genres. Which is how you end up with techno-inflected folk music as the band does much more than play backup to Jose Gonzales. And with Sia, whose songs sounded like nothing so much as great classic soul.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.