First Bon Iver, now Zola Jesus. The Pitchfork crowd is falling in love with Northern Wisconsin.
The Wausau-born Jesus (her real name is Nika Danilova) celebrated the release of her new EP, Stridulum, Saturday night at the Project Lodge on East Johnson Street. Julian Lynch and Sonmi opened. The show marked the UW-Madison's student's return to playing in her hometown after a year's absence, and based on the raucous admiration from the audience, she was sorely missed.
Clad all in black, with shaggy dark hair framing her face, Jesus stood barely over five feet, yet the voice that emerged from her was hardly diminutive. Trained as an opera singer, Jesus sang with her entire body, flinging out her arms, climbing up a ladder, and closing her eyes as her colossal voice engulfed the gallery space cum concert venue and video art flashed across a white background.
The music Jesus makes is beyond genre -- some combination of noise, pop, and lo-fi grime with huge drums underneath it. The unintelligible lyrics that characterized her first album, The Spoils, which was recorded in Jesus' apartment, have been cleaned up this time around, making it easier to appreciate their profundity.
The songs on Stridulum are beautiful, haunting, and melodically gripping -- songs that leave an ache in the air when the last chord plays. "Night," the single that Pitchfork previewed last month, has a surprisingly catchy hook beneath intimate lyrics: "I'm on my bed/My bed is stones/But in the end of the night/We'll rest our bones." The five other numbers on the EP, including the bruising "Manifest Destiny" and "I Can't Stand," are equally compelling and will be available on iTunes starting this week.
One might expect that the melancholy of Jesus' music would translate into her stage persona, but instead she seemed sweet and unfailingly polite, thanking the audience for its support and reminiscing about early shows. With upcoming appearances at New York's Bowery Ballroom and Austin's South by Southwest festival, Jesus has come a long way from the basement of Glass Nickel, and it's unlikely that she'll be playing small shows like this one for much longer.
Jesus' modest charm overlaying her giant talent only proves the old adage: you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you cannot take the Midwest out of the girl. So sing on, Zola, and remember the Wisconsin woods from which you emerged.