A couple years ago, M83 released “Graveyard Girl,” a single about a misunderstood, presumably black-clad young woman who talks to graves. Channeled through M83’s effulgent dream-pop, it was a through-the-looking-glass vision of goth rather than the real thing. It sounds more like a nostalgic sigh over the troubles of eyeliner-wearing youth, looking back on days when it made sense to dress like the dead.
Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova) just might be the “Graveyard Girl” that M83 had in mind. The Madison, Wisc.-based 22-year-old certainly has the look down, and the long shadow of Siouxsie Sioux is conjured by her vocals. But just as “Graveyard Girl” is buoyant pop about goth, much of Zola’s latest EP, Stridulum, is distortion-heavy goth with the shades pulled up. It shows her starting to outgrow the sludgy darkness of her earlier releases.
That’s not to say the sun has completely emerged from the clouds. Her MySpace page exhibits that heavier darkness on older songs, like a funereal cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” But much of Stridulum is made up of sincere love songs and aching ballads about longing. Opener “Night” establishes the Zola Jesus sound at this point: Pounding beats, ethereal synthesizers and Danilova’s soulful voice tearing through reverb like a banshee’s cries, lost in the wind. If you can imagine a warmer version of Suicide fronted by Björk, you’d be getting close.
On tracks like “I Can’t Stand,” her lyrics are almost painfully earnest. “It’s not easy to fall in love / if you’re lucky you just might find someone / So don’t let it get you down,” she sings, encroaching on Morrissey’s territory. But her music, and Danilova’s amazing set of pipes, elevate her above being maudlin. Danilova spent years dedicated to opera as a teenager, and it shows, with an impressive emotional range in her siren’s call. There’s no doubt that voice is the central instrument in her music.
“Run Me Out” is a standout on the EP, with a crying bass backing Danilova’s vocals, which carry the hurt of a woman wounded by a man for the umpteenth time, surprised by her lack of surprise. With each successive release, Danilova has pared back on the lo-fi quality of her recordings, her voice coming out from the electronic haze. It’d be great to hear this song’s beautiful sadness performed acoustically, and if Zola Jesus keeps to the same track, that might yet happen.
If there’s a glaring flaw on the EP, it would be that the songs, though lovely, do start to sound the same. As a whole, the album runs together. But this six-track EP is a mere appetizer; with two full-lengths under her belt, fans should be looking forward to her third-whether the sun remains behind the clouds or not.
Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Bjork – Homogenic
Former Ghosts – Fleur