The Rickety Old Shack

Zola Jesus — Taiga

album cover

As a fan of music in general, I enjoy music spanning every genre imaginable. While my tastes skew towards the extreme fringes of metal, that is by no means the entirety of my listening. That being said, when it comes to anything crossing over into the realm of pop music, I will profess ignorance of the highest order.

When it comes to artists like Zola Jesus, I rely exclusively on the medium of second-hand recommendations to find them. So, when El-P gave a strong recommendation of her 2014 release, Taiga, I took notice. I'm open to pretty much anything, and when one of my favourite record producers gives a nod to an album, that's more than enough to pique my curiosity. It's very rare that an album is a complete waste of time, so despite knowing nothing about the artist I was an easy sell.

As tends to be the case with unheralded releases I find by virtue of casual mention, Taiga ended up being quite the gem. Right away, with the title track I was put on notice; Zola Jesus has an incredible voice which she leverages to maximum effect on each track. While the bulk of the material on Taiga definitely has a strong pop sensibility to it — with catchy hooks and radio-friendly song structure — things diverge from the mainstream just enough to remain unique. Zola's voice is beautiful on each of these tracks and, to her credit, they sound like genuine vocals — not the product of auto-tune and studio butchery.

Likely due to Zola Jesus being a one-woman operation, Taiga manages to sound like a very organic electro-pop record in spite of the synthetic instrumentation. For lack of a better description, Taiga sounds like the product of an artist as opposed to a cabal of hired guns and data-driven marketing. While this was my introduction to Zola Jesus' work, I did investigate her prior releases; Taiga is certainly her most accessible work, but a lot of the elements that make her music unique still remain intact. The production value is first-rate, but that is the only major difference I noted.

Zola's vocal work is, as per usual, a highlight of every track; whether it's the slow refrain of "Go (Bank Sea)," or the uptempo banger in "Hunger," Zola's voice is a strong anchor for each song. The only major shift I noticed was the songs, lyrically, are a lot more coherent than efforts like The Spoils or Conatus. Otherwise, this feels like an evolved, but not unexpected performance from a really creative artist. Having worked my way backwards through Zola Jesus' discography, I actually prefer the newer releases, though all of her work is interesting and worth spending some time with.

I have a soft-spot for jack-of-all-trades musicians / producers, so I'll readily admit some level of bias is at play here. Still, Taiga stands on its own as a quality pop record; each song is well crafted and doesn't overstay its welcome. The record features more slower songs, but overall there's a lot of energy on these songs; this isn't strictly a dark, brooding album though there are certainly somber moments. One thing I really like about Zola Jesus is the pop style without feeling like I just listened to a dozen variants of dopesick relationship woes — the lyrical content is an impressive combination of deep and non-specific.

Speaking as a fan of music in general, Taiga was an excellent surprise to come upon. Compositionally, Zola Jesus offers up some of her strongest work to date; whether or not you're already familiar with her past work, and prefer her weirder, fringe leanings, Taiga represents a lot of quality workmanship. As a performer and producer, Zola Jesus stakes a good claim to being deserving of as much attention as she gets. This record, and her contribution to the Meow The Jewels project have given me paws pause; I don't profess to be the most tuned-in listener, so when I find an artist like Zola Jesus it's a reminder of why I love music so much in the first place.

Taiga is not a perfect record, but it is a very good one. The latter half feels a touch too long, with a few too many slow passages. This is a minor complaint, as the songs as still very good; I could have gone for one or two more really up-tempo songs in the vein of "Hunger" or "Dangerous Days." All things considered, though, this is a very strong release and I do recommend it. "It's Not Over" is a very good album closer, and mostly makes up for the somewhat slow pacing from "Go (Bank Sea)" through to "Hollow." All things considered, I give Taiga top marks and look forward to whatever Zola Jesus does next — she's made a fan in me.

Summary

A strong, mature showing from a very crafty singer-songwriter / producer. Zola Jesus may have opted to go in a more pop-oriented direction this time out, but the results are still very impressive. I do not profess a strong affinity for her prior work — having given it only a cursory glance before writing this review — but I would say this is definitely her best work to date. The refinements in production and song-writing are apparent, even if one would prefer a return to the more abstract, off-kilter tenor of previous efforts. If you're in need of some good, well produced music from a talented pop artist then Taiga is absolutely worth your attention.

Album Information

Release date: October 7th, 2014
Record label: Mute Records

Zola Jesus — music, production, vocals
Dean Hurley — co-production, mixing

Track Listing

  1. Taiga
  2. Dangerous Days
  3. Dust
  4. Hunger
  5. Go (Bank Sea)
  6. Ego
  7. Lawless
  8. Nail
  9. Long Way Down
  10. Hollow
  11. It's Not Over

—by Derek

Published: November 4, 2015.