Valusia (Sacred Bones)
On her first two albums as Zola Jesus, Nika Danilova buried her big, opera-trained voice under fuzzy keyboards, skuzzy guitars, and cheapo canned beats. Her bedroom goth-pop might have found its apex in the grand, Phil Spector-meets-Throbbing Gristle marvel “Clay Bodies” from last year’s The Spoils, a track that hinted at the changes to come. Danilova cleaned up her sound, brightened her melodies, and made her lyrics intelligible. The results, found on the Stridulum EP earlier this year and now Valusia, are mixed. The bad news is the lyrics turn out to be pretty banal, and her music is now a watered-down derivation of the U.K. New Romantic movement. The good news is it’s great to hear her voice clear and unencumbered. Danilova possesses a voice unlike any in pop music, overblown and histrionic to some, enthralling and addictive to others—sort of how people respond to Kate Bush.
If only she were as imaginative in her music as Bush. “Poor Animal” has a generic nascent techno beat that sounds lifted from an ’80s aerobics video, “Tower” sounds more like a sketch than a full-fledged song, and the totality of the music on “Lightstick” is a simple, repetitive piano figure. The standout track here is the majestic “Sea Talk,” but even its keyboards sound like the Cure on an uninspired day. None of the music is outright bad, and I’ll probably end up playing Valusia a lot just to listen to Danilova sing. But I also think she’s destined to hook up with a sympathetic producer who’ll coax a more complex, varied sound out of her. At only 21, she’s already responsible for an impressive body of work, but you can’t help but think she’s just warming up for something much bigger, and much, much better.