Last year, the Guggenheim commissioned a performance from synth-pop songwriter Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova), who called on Foetus’ J.G. Thirlwell to arrange her songs for strings. The pair performed alongside the Mivos Quartet and ultimately recorded studio versions of these arrangements for the album Versions.
The result is lovely, showing off Danilova’s voice against the simplicity of these arrangements. It kicks off with “Avalanche (Slow),” which takes the Conatus track and stretches it to an elegantly somber extreme. Danilova has impressive vocal control here, commanding the spotlight in ways she never quite did on the song’s original version. Despite the presence of strings, she actually seems more like a solo artist on Versions than on her previous recordings; the recording of “Sea Talk” here sounds like conversational singer-songwriter fare, a stark contrast to the noise-engulfed version that appeared on 2009’s Tsar Bomba and the synth-heavy version from 2010’s Stridulum II.
But the strings do more than just complement her voice; on the new song “Fall Back,” they periodically squeak and squeal behind her, giving the song an unsettling energy leading up to its frenzied denouement. On “Hikikomori,” the strings add an urgency that’s absent from the more dreamlike original.
As serenely enchanting as these songs are, they also grow a little monotonous as Versions progresses. Other than bringing Danilova’s voice higher in the mix (and swapping synths for strings), there’s not a huge difference between the “Collapse” here and the version on Conatus. Similarly, the overlapping vocals at the beginning of “Seekir” were one of the original song’s more interesting textures; she doesn’t do much to enhance or augment that here.
But even if a few of these songs falter in a side-by-side comparison with the originals, the string-enhanced versions of these songs make for a compelling listen, thanks to Danilova’s poised delivery and the arrangements as a whole, giving her a versatility and appeal beyond her electropop fan base.