Two years after the release of the riveting Conatus, it's unclear whether we needed an album of orchestral versions of most of those songs (plus a smattering from the Stridulum II and Valusia EPs). Where's the new material, Ms. Jesus? What's worse, these takes on her previous efforts—recorded with a string quartet led by Foetus' J.G. Thirlwell—reveal her work's mawkish flaws. Amid the alien hiss of her usual electronic production, Jesus' songs tend to soar just along the right side of melodrama. Accompanied by a squealing string section, her songs tend to sound tacky. The album's dreary riff on "Collapse," for example, is as formless as it is grating.
The upside is that the stripped-down production also lets the strength of her pop hooks shine through. Given her goth-art-goddess self-presentation, it might be easy to forget that Zola Jesus albums often contain a few songs catchy enough to give Lorde's "Royals" a run for its money on the Billboard charts. The Versions take on Valusia's "Sea Talk" underscores its anthemic power and, more notably, the reboot of Stridulum's "Run Me Out" reminds us what an impeccably crafted ballad it's always been. Others, like "Seekir" are virtually unchanged in their acoustic form.
So ultimately, what's Versions got to offer beyond novelty? Fans aren't going to retire their copy of Conatus in favor of these screechier incarnations. In the end, hasn't Jesus just ceded more ground to the Lordes of the world?