Creating classical arrangement albums is nothing new in the pop world, but more often than not they are created as a spinoff to a greatest hits compilation.
For Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, Versions is more than just classical renditions of her songbook, but a complete rejuvenation of Nika’s soul that gives an entirely new meaning to the lyrical content within. Coming off an offshoot classical arrangement performance at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, Versions became Zola Jesus’ full fledged recorded project with the same vision. Teaming up with J.G. Thirlwell to provide the arrangements for string quartet, Danilova’s exasperating lyrics and operatically-trained vocals remains first and foremost the spotlight of Versions.
While many of the songs featured on Versions were originally produced for strings, they now take on an even more grandiose and charged-up feel. Yet strangely enough, the strings never really seem to be the focus of Versions, instead the distant and bareness of Danilova’s voice is still front and center. The re-envisioned songbook grants her the opportunity to sound even larger, vulnerable and more decisive. The classical arrangement of Danilova’s songs refocuses the emphasis on the value of her songwriting in what perhaps was overlooked in the original recordings. Never is that more evident than on the new version of “Avalanches,” where Danilova’s voice soars seamlessly with the rising strings in a newfound emotionally-ceding undertone. Some revisions of Zola Jesus’ songbook do not drastically differ in tempo from the original incarnations, but the new paint job still gives a rejuvenated feel of emotional outpour (most notably “In Your Nature” and “Seekir”).
The biggest highlight of Versions is undoubtedly the inclusion of “Fall Back,” the lone new material on the album. Disguising itself as an uptempo pop-like track, “Fall Back” is a thunderous, adrenaline-filled ballade with a strong, romanticizing outcry. It’s almost a shame that it ever ends. Here too is a track that strongly benefits from a string arrangement with a “racing and gripping” continuous, frenetic momentum. It’s almost difficult to imagine the song performed in any other way – “Fall Back” is practically perfect.
Versions presents Zola Jesus’ music in its most accessible form with less production, yet more dynamic and vivid than ever. Thirlwell’s arrangements create a playground for Danilova’s bare vocals that accentuate her lyrical mastery to a whole new level of imagery. The new classical arrangements emphasizes how much control, physically and emotionally, Danilova possesses over her words. On much of Versions, its fair to say that many of the new renditions are possibly better than the original incarnations and “Fall Back” is now undoubtedly Danilova’s best song to date by far, classical arrangement or not. Much of the ominous, dark tones of Zola Jesus’ songbook have been toned down in place of a serene spin to be more palpable. For those who weren’t Zola Jesus fans before, Versions will be that ticket to finding her more alluring and personally gravitating than ever before.
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