Before listening to Catalyst by Jessi Lee Ross I briefly scanned the cover art and other pictures on her Bandcamp page. There is a picture of her playing guitar and singing into a microphone. My brain automatically expected the lyrics would be the focal center of Catalyst but to my surprise there isn’t one single word on the album. The album almost solely revolves around a single acoustic guitar.
Your first thought might be that this could be an incredibly boring album, which I don’t blame you for. Catalyst is in no way an intense album and certainly won’t be something you will be hearing in a dance club but it isn’t boring. As I listened to the songs I was met with a sense of tranquility, nostalgia and melancholy. The songs are minimal mood pieces that I could make comparisons to Julianna Barwick's latest release Nepenthe. Nepenthe is more vocal based with more instrumentation and less acoustic guitar but often conveys a similar vibe and feeling. Serene, still and present are some of the words that come to mind.
There are thirteen songs on Catalyst but they might as well as been one track. The best way to experience Catalyst is by pressing playing and listening to the album from beginning to end. Each song has a very subtle difference in mood but the foundation stays the same.
One thing that needs to be mentioned is that one of the reasons this album works is because of the tone and recording quality. The acoustic guitar sounds warm, organic and like it was recorded with mics not a DI. Impressively this is a DIY effort and Ross deserves some kudos in this department.
The strings that are picked on “Sunday” are played lightly creating a fragile atmosphere that could fall apart at any moment. The beauty is that it doesn't. An hypnotic, ambient mood is painted on “Ephemera” while “Vitreous” introduces delicate vocal harmonies. “Dream Consistency” very well may have the most gorgeous melodies on the album. The only questionable track was “Relapse,” which had a tinny guitar sound. Luckily, the vocal harmonies help fill out the sound.
The closing track “Adrift” was the highlight and hopefully a precursor of her next album. It contained a cello, which created a lush and even more emotionally resonant canvas of sounds.
Catalyst is a good album but I think that adding elements like orchestral strings, bells and possibly brass might be the next logical step for Ross. Her next album doesn’t necessarily need more layers but the possibility is there for it to be more lush, expressive and encompassing if more instrumentation is implemented with tact. For the time being Catalyst will certainly suffice so sit down, relax and take a listen.
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