Zola Jesus, Talk Normal Crescent Ballroom Wednesday, February 1, 2012
In my interview with Nika Danilova, the leader of Zola Jesus, she spoke of her reticence to embrace her childhood dream of pop stardom. While there's little chance of her tearing up the Billboard charts, Danilova commanded the stage with both pop prowess and ethereal mysticism.
Touring with Zola Jesus was Brooklyn duo Talk Normal, carrying the torch of both old New York no-wave and the city's contemporary noisemakers. Guitarist Sarah Register gingerly patted her chest to the beat with one hand while strumming her guitar behind the pickups, Lee Ranaldo-style. Drummer Andrya Amdro threw down fragmented beats with her teeth bared and neck angled high, humming, and shouting into a tiny microphone.
Maybe it was the context, but their set felt hesitant and restrained.
Compared to the band's brutally atonal albums, Talk Normal was generally quiet. Behind her kit, Amdro had an arsenal of blinky pedals plugged into a tiny amp that hardly registered in the mix. At their best, Talk Normal sounded like a deconstructed Royal Trux, skewing odd blues progressions with crackling beats and compelling two-way lyrical snarls. At its less-impressive moments, it felt like tame no-wave, if there is such a thing. However, this was the first stop of the tour, and Talk Normal's art-punk dirges appear to be modeled for something other than cavernous venues.
The presentation of Zola Jesus, however, fit the space perfectly and was built entirely around harsh contrast. Three blue cubes glowed at the stage's center. The keyboard player, dressed in black with some shiny eyewear, calmly assumed the role of melodic automaton. The buff drummer, in a black tank top, cued the backing tracks and approximated the industrial beats with hammering precision. I'm hardly knocking these guys; their focused, darkened presence at the stage wings lent a menacing quality to the proceedings.
An austere violinist played behind the glow-cubes, her sweeping sustains guiding the opening songs of the set. Zola Jesus set the tone with moody slow-burners like "Hikikomori," Danilova belting the soaring choruses while clinging to the microphone stand. As the tempos picked up, Danilova paced the stage and flailed in time. When the driving beat of "Seekir" dropped, the room really started swaying and Danilova briefly dipped down into the excited crowd.
The sound of Zola Jesus slowly has moved from abrasive to sultry, but the approach is still nuanced. The performance was a demonstration of perfect balance between fearless exposure and willful obfuscation; ice-blue light and comfortable dark. Her ornate white dress initially making her into a specter on the stage, Danilova grew more ecstatic, more visible as the night progressed. Of course, the band's quick offstage respite before the encore allowed time for the fog machine to reinstate the haze.
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Last Night: Zola Jesus and Talk Normal at Crescent Ballroom
Personal bias: I saw Talk Normal in a Tempe living room in 2009. It was really loud that time.
Random Notebook Dump: I noticed a lot of dads at this show, and God bless 'em. My dad took me to my first concert, for which I will be forever indebted. I actually saw an older gentleman in the all-ages section take a picture of Talk Normal with the same flip-phone my dad owned in 2004. He even had the same beige belt clip accessory.