Stephanie Catlett + Band w/ Crystal City, Becca Sutlive
Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Friday. Feb. 28 at 9 p.m.
Stephanie Catlett’s EP Meet Me In the Dream was launched into the world on Dec. 18, 2019. Coming at the end of a year in which the corruption and hatred in the world at large augmented acts of courage and hope at the smaller scale, it is unsurprising that the songs remain suspended between the optimism of an artist inspired to create and a world contextualized by troubles and suffering.
The album swims in melancholy, announced by the tender tones of the violin, whose sweetness is balanced by the guitar and Catlett’s voice. The production allows small changes to be heard with great effect: sometimes Suzanne Wedeking’s violin or Sam Drella’s trumpet, sometimes a particular texture from Dan Padley’s guitar. Brian Cooper’s drumming allows the different sonic textures to interact gently and gracefully, as Catlett holds the center of each song. Her voice moves from pleasant to interesting within its phrasing, and one suspects that hearing the songs live will only deepen the lovely iteration provided in the album.
The lyrics are complex and poignant. The title track, “Ruined Houses,” looks at the difficulty of accepting change that has happened when the world contains echoes of what you desire without want. Rather than resignation, the song amplifies a sense of perseverance: “Walking away has never been my strength / But I’ll try today.” There’s a quiet acceptance of reality that allows a sense of forward motion.
The celebration of hard-fought stalemates continues throughout. In “So, David,” Catlett offers “… a glass to the prize you never won / To the goodbyes you didn’t say to anyone.” In “Nothing but Fine,” she shows the courage necessary to embrace the space between the overwhelming depression caused by “the news of the day” or “the unbearable knowing of what we have done” and the false solace of a dream “Where we promise this won’t happen next time” and “agree to be nothing but fine.”
Although this sounds bleak, Catlett’s voice manages to be worn but warm — tired, tried but resolute. Nothing is easy in Catlett’s world, but nothing remains impossible. The songs less embody than reflect her difficulties, providing a space for both her and for listeners to find inspiration and solace.
The quality of this surprise debut collection exposes the depth of talent available in Iowa City — from session musicians like Padley, Dana Telsrow and Drella (all of whom have established themselves as excellent musicians in other spaces) to the excellent work of the busy Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studios, to the art direction by Mara Cole and Jen Knights. The album shows how a local community exists to nourish dreams into reality.
Ed. Note: Stephanie Catlett is a former staff member and occasional freelancer for Little Village. An earlier version of this article identified Dana Telsrow as the album’s guitarist; in fact, Telsrow played bass, and Dan Padley guitar.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 279.