• Jeff Elstone
  • Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus

I was pretty surprised the first couple of times I listened to Taiga (Mute), the latest album from Wisconsin native Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus). Her voice remains as dramatic and forceful as ever, with a strong thread of viscous darkness, but her songs trade in her old goth introversion for something bright, larger-than-life, and, at times, seriously hooky. Some of the songs shoot for wide-angle pop, propelled by big electronic-dance-music beats and the singer’s even bigger, brassier voice, replete with bittersweet, soaring harmony overdubs and phrasing that clearly borrows some of its swoops and curlicues from modern R&B. It’s a relatively shocking shift from the music on her last record, Versions (Sacred Bones), where she collaborated with J.G. Thirwell (aka Foetus) and Mivos Quartet, one of the most daring contemporary classical string quartets at work these days.

Several things distinguish Taiga from mere product, including the arrangements. Danilova programmed the music on drum machines and added texture and melody with synthesizers, but the meat on those bones is sometimes provided by either a string quartet or a huge section of brass instruments, neither of which adheres to the usual roles such elements fulfill in pop music. The brass, which sounds like it’s electronically processed here and there, provides the visceral oomph of a marching band on the opening of “Hunger,” but more often than not it provides plush, resonant drones. While some of the songs spell things out in bold letters, others are more oblique, with nicely juxtaposed ingredients—like the way the brass cuts through the serenity on “It’s Not Over” or the way the vocal harmonies on “Nail” occasionally recall Eastern European folk traditions.

Below you can listen to the album’s most recent single, “Go (Blank Sea),” where the R&B influence is pretty explicit. Zola Jesus headlines the Athenaeum Theatre tonight.

Today’s playlist:

Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, Here and Now/Another Git Together (Mercury, Japan)
Various artists, Voltaique Panoramique Volume 1 (Kindred Spirits)
Bill Evans Trio, How My Heart Sings! (OJC/Riverside)
Chris Darrow, Artist Proof (Drag City)
Ahmad Zahir, The King of 70’s Afghan Pop! Volumes 2 & 3 (Pharaway Sounds)