As Zola Jesus, Nika Roza Danilova caused a sizable stir in the past year or so, releasing an EP, a split LP with Burial Hex, and two solo LPs in 2009 alone. Purveyor of crimson wave/darkwave/noise goth or whatever wacky appellation you want to hang on her music, she’s covering similar ground as a lot of contemporary post-noise songwriters who favor muddy production smeared across their poptones. Sharp drum machine-produced beats, shrill keyboards, and epic distortion are the delivery system for generally recognizable song structures. But the main attraction to ZJ, and one that will likely remain so no matter what musical direction the opera-trained 21 year old ends up taking, is her voice. While those with a deep affection for her voice could listen to it in almost any musical setting, those who find her singing affected and mannered, who can’t take that much drama in every song, have to at least acknowledge the strength of her voice.
Danilova seems to have been born at the right time, though, because the vogue for noisy pop suits her powerful, resonant voice surprisingly well. Her musical mood seems confined to the dark and gothic, which seems fitting, but she doesn’t get all impenetrably Diamanda Galas about it. She broadened her audience a bit with the cleaned-up sonics of this year’s Stridulum EP, even if her underlying aesthetic hadn’t changed that much. Although it seems inevitable that Danilova will end up working with a big-time producer (Chamber pop via Marius de Vries or Van Dyke Parks? Club bangers courtesy of Switch and Diplo?) or turning up on a tasteful collaboration with Björk or Antony, a lot of people like those fuzzy/skuzzy layers of keyboards and canned drums, and are hoping things don’t get too spic and span just yet. Thankfully, LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus arrives to further postpone her assimilation.
As half of Pocahaunted, Amanda Brown has been increasingly incorporating dub rhythms and production techniques into the droney duo’s quasi-tribal trip. With LA Vampires, she seems to have embraced the dub aesthetic wholly while keeping Pocahaunted’s gauzy recording quality intact. Brown is credited with all the music on this 25-minute EP — “Beats, keys, vice” — to which Danilova adds her echo-y, layered vocals. It makes for a fine pairing, the production leaning toward the murky lo-fi end of things but foregoing the more piercing, dissonant sounds of earlier ZJ efforts for a smooth, underwater dub vibe. At times, such as on “Searching,” Brown adds a bit of slowed-down acid jazz vibe.
Brown’s concocted a sinister dub brew for Danilova to sing over, or really, under, as most of the vocals are buried and unintelligible. Not a problem, because if the inspirational, greeting card-style lyrics discernible on Stridulum are any indication, ZJ’s vocals always work better as atmosphere. Only on the EP’s closing version of Jamaican singer Dawn Penn’s frequently covered and sampled “No No No” can we clearly make out words, the hypnotically repetitive refrain “No no no, you don’t love me I know.” This song follows “Eulogy,” the one track here I found to convey much emotion. Maybe that’s because this is the one track where Danilova’s wordless vocals dominate, the sparse beats and keyboards creeping around in the background. Whereas ZJ’s music tends toward high-drama strum and drang, the music Brown lays down just kind of hangs there, mellow and intoxicating, not trying to elicit any emotive response.
There’s nothing terribly complicated or eclectic about the music overall, and there doesn’t need to be. The slow grooves and hazy sound are a perfect but until now untested fit with Danilova’s singing. LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus is seductive, lulling listening, as easy on the ears as anything either of these artist have recorded, but that certainly doesn’t make it lightweight.