Nika Roza Danilova put her own distinctive stamp on dramatic electronic pop with her third album as Zola Jesus, 2011’s Conatus, and aimed to spread her influence with additional guest spots on albums by Orbital and M83. In May of 2012, she publicly morphed from artist to artiste by collaborating with J.G. Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet on live interpretations of her material at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. All parties involved subsequently agreed to bring that show on the road— a tour starts in Philadelphia on September 13th— and into the studio, resulting in the new Versions album.
There are plenty of “orchestral tribute to” albums floating around the racks and cutout bins of indie storefronts and big-box music aisles, with ensembles trying to emulate or improve upon the arrangements in the work of a popular artist. Your Radioheads and Metallicas of the world are complex and bombastic, and therefore obvious foils, while electronic musicians are less so because of the oft-repetitive nature of their beats and beeps. Rare exceptions have been allowed for chamber music to mimic dance music through bleeding-edge arrangements (see: Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin tribute) or mere soft-focus versions (see: Kronos Quartet hopping on a Nine Inch Nails track).
Zola Jesus takes the latter path, on what might be the quietest release with which “Foetus” Thirlwell has ever been involved. Conatus and other prior releases delivered echoing IDM underneath Danilova’s thin stream of consciousness, her indie-waif vocals already somewhere between Florence Welch and Fiona Apple. Most of the songs on Versions immediately recall their originals without sweeping change. “In Your Nature” sounds maybe a little more spare, and “Hikikomori” simply amps up existing strings and leaves its drum track behind. “Collapse” here is more fragile than the original, but has much in common with the slow “Avalanche” at the start of album— listen to the album on repeat and you’ll think it’s the same song.
The most interesting music on this album doesn’t even come from Conatus: Staccato phrases and drum taps liven up Stridulum track “Run Me Out,” while there are more vocals up front and in unison on a new take of “Sea Talk” from Valusia. But then the new strings in “Seekir” almost seem intrusive, while “Night”— another song that already had synth strings on its first release— feels stripped of its gravitas, permitting Zola Jesus to fit way too comfortably on a chick-flick soundtrack. The music of Versions is pleasant enough, but away from a live performance setting it doesn’t feel like a significant step forward.