Zola Jesus


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On the surface, Taiga is easily Zola Jesus' most accessible album. With each release, Nika has peeled away the layers of noise blanketing her music; Versions, her orchestral collaboration with J.G. Thirlwell, also reflected her sound's increasing refinement. Taiga boasts her most honed palette of sounds yet, fusing brass and strings with beats and synths into a majestic yet poignant sound that recalls Björk's Homogenic, especially on the stately title track and "Hunger"'s frantic rhythms. Emphasizing her biggest strengths -- her huge voice, ringing melodies, and thoughtful lyrics -- should take Taiga to new heights, and at times it does. She embraces her newfound pop side wholeheartedly, and many moments suggest that this transformation holds promise. It's more than a little remarkable how well she harnesses her power into songs with clearly delineated hooks and choruses: "Dangerous Days" is equally glowering and joyous, echoing Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" with its galloping beat as well as the moody electropop Sia took to the top of the charts earlier in 2014. Meanwhile, "Dust"'s slinky rhythms and brass combine R&B and classical leanings into something bewitching. However, too often Taiga's polarized sound -- which alternates between sparse and full-blast with little in between -- becomes monotonous, and sometimes Nika's voice is almost too intense, like the musical equivalent of staring directly into the sun. Each track here is powerful individually, but as a group they tend to diminish each other; this is particularly true on the album's second half, where songs such as "Hollow" feel oppressive instead of dramatic. It's notable that Nika was often more vulnerable when separated from her listeners by swaths of distortion on previous albums than she is on Taiga, though she does provide respites with more delicate moments like "Lawless" and the uniquely confessional "Ego." Even if it's not her most intimate work -- especially compared with how effortlessly she balanced big and little moments on Conatus -- Taiga allows Nika to be inventive and craft some some stunningly beautiful moments along the way.

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