Rating:The diminutive songstress Nika Danilova, better known by her Zola Jesus moniker, has over the course of three previous LPs established her voice as ethereally symphonic. Perhaps that’s why, in this collaborative effort with composer JG Thirlwell, Danilova chooses to strip away the haze of synthesizers and reverbed vocals and put her sonorous voice at the fore of the Mivos Quartet’s classical arrangements instead of shrouding it behind her usual gossamer veil of reverb. Her recent release Versions reworks nine tracks from her past efforts (which also include a scatter of EPs and other collaborations), and at 24 she’s already earned the right to tinker and experiment in ways that only the truly prolific can. On Versions, it’s a worthy endeavor, though this album also won’t blow any minds or win Zola Jesus many new converts.
Danilova’s voice remains robust throughout, but also very noticeably more tender and intimate. Whereas in past albums, such as her 2011 breakthrough, Conatus, Danilova often sounds as though she’s sonically piercing through from some faraway, angelic dimension, on Versions it’s often as if she’s in the same room with you. Her voice is complemented by Thirlwell’s arrangements, to be sure, but at times they do battle a bit for prominence, as in “Seekir” when the urgent flutter of strings and churning drums begins to overtake her. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing either, as the album does at times otherwise come off as more homogenous than her previous work due to the limitation to mostly organic instruments.
On past albums it’s been difficult to imagine that Danilova, trained in opera since she was a child, once suffered crippling performance anxiety prior to coming to the Zola Jesus stage name. The way she emotes on pensive songs like “Run Me Out” could make you believe she was belting out mellifluous gold straight from the womb. “Hikikomori” is another example of the immediacy of Danilova’s voice as it’s poured over urgent strings, eventually blending into a delectable swirl. And “Fall Back,” with its plinking strings, skittering percussion and more pop-oriented chorus from Danilova, definitely marks the closest this album has to a standout track. But at other times, such as on opener “Avalanche (Slow),” the orchestral elements are plodding and drag down the pacing of the song to the point of almost becoming sluggish, or at least overly deliberate.
Trying to compare these reworked versions with their proper forebears isn’t recommended, though. Versions acts as more of an intriguing though non-essential experiment. Thirlwell’s contributions are welcomed and mostly beautiful, and the album isn’t quite a stopgap project, but it’s also little more than of an enjoyable novelty or refreshingly inventive change of pace. Versions makes for a great bedroom album or, conversely, one to curl up to and have a good lonely cry, but it’s not one we’ll be talking about in the same breath as Conatus or whatever Zola Jesus will do next.