Under the name Zola Jesus, Russian American singer Nika Roza Danilova writes near-perfect rainy day music — glacial, synthesizer-driven pop that matches primitivist rhythms to moody meditations on blighted romance. In person, it’s all a bit more uplifting.
On Thursday night at U Street Music Hall, Danilova delivered a one-hour set to a near-capacity crowd that swayed in solemn unison while she struck yogalike poses amid the soft blue stage lighting.
Danilova’s music has its roots in the funereal sounds of early ’80s post-punk and goth rock — groups such as the Cocteau Twins, the Cure and Dead Can Dance, who used then-current production technology — samplers, drum machines, cavernous digital reverb effects — to imbue songs with epic theatricality and abstract edge. These groups blurred the lines between art-rock and mainstream pop and, sometimes, found temporary purchase with larger audiences. It’s not hard to imagine Danilova forging a similar connection with the masses.
Zola Jesus is not a retro-minded reenactment, but it is built from a similar impulse to marry pop production to punk rock urgency. Songs on her most recent LP, “Contanus,” find their rhythms in contemporary dance music and even the herky-jerky rhythms of dubstep, but the melodies are earnest, simple, and convincingly delivered.
When performing live, Danilova relies on a backing band – on Thursday, this included a keyboardist, a violinist, and a percussionist – who reinterpret and augment her computer-driven compositions, adding extra urgency and uplift. On record, Danilova’s schtick can sometimes grow claustrophobic and samey, but with the band at her side, the songs opened up, morphing from boxy digital rhythms to cathartic U2-worthy bombast. She has a limited vocal range, but she works around it by paying attention to dynamic – building tension with hushed declamations and then releasing via operatic outbursts. In the set’s finest moments, like the rhythm heavy song “Vessel,” Danilova let an extra bit of grit into her voice, breaking the music’s serene surface and amping up the tension, rocking back and forth like she might spike the microphone into the stage.