Kati Malison wrote What Stays about memories and forgetting, in three years when so much kept slipping away: her context, her priorities, her past. She left her Maryland home in summer 2020 headed west, crossing the continent to Oregon, where she reconnected with longtime friends Max Holbrook and Lewis Brown to form this new band, Doll Spirit Vessel. In a cabin they rented that winter in Chiloquin – with puppy Couscous – the trio together brought life to eleven songs Malison had carried with her all that way.

What Stays, their debut out this month on Disposable America (the home of Horse Jumper of Love, Oceanator, and many others), packs a punchy mix of alternative sheen, tasteful baroque pop, emo and grunge that feels like a totally fresh take on the jagged rock that unafraid stars like Mistki, Hop Along and Girlpool exploded in the last ten years. Malison’s vocal performances mark the highlights, turning from anthem to bitter soliloquy in a single song, twisting everywhere in between. But she describes the project as deeply collaborative at heart: her musicality is “mostly intuitive” and melodic, while Brown’s guitar brings critical texture and Holbrook’s bass brings the harmonic scaffolding that gives songs like “Small Mass” such stirring changes. Phrases come naturally to Malison, sharp drum and guitar patterns fitting together underneath like a mirror mosaic; careful moments in trippy timing, measures passing in odd numbers, and occasional odd time signatures make the trio’s craft even more outstanding (“Counting”). Plus, the parts are engineered brilliantly and balanced to perfection – on “crowd-sourced cables and instruments,” rounded out by cheap gear rentals and a few “choice” purchases advised by Bradford Krieger (of Big Nice Studio in Rhode Island) and Heather Jones (of So Big Auditory in Philly). These three didn’t need a renowned studio to record a brilliant, brilliant album.

Doll Spirit Vessel’s album release party at Planet Earth PHL | photo by John Vettese

Visions of longing, missing, and remembering get refracted in Malison’s lyrics, which she wrote while confronting how much of her life she has already forgotten, “how to conceive of the past without [memory], how to preserve the present in its stead.” We hear her work through miscommunications and misunderstandings (“your granite mind transfixed / make as if to stay, then never sit”), close people out of reach (“your face looked tan through the phone screen / pixelated”). A quest to keep love alive grows overlong on “Routine,” a small masterpiece that ties “your body as a drying rack” to “your body as something to be loved by me.” Malison’s writing feels both familiar and futuristic, a tremendous accomplishment for a project inspired by moments that have already gone.

Since the bandmates live scattered across the country – Malison in Philadelphia, Brown in L.A., and Holbrook in Massachusetts – Malison says the ten days they spent at that cabin, South of Crater Lake, felt transformative and pointed her from the past into what’s next, as the record finally suggests. “We talked about how this, more than anything, is what we wanted to spend our lives doing. It was a supremely beautiful time, and I am at peace with how it resides in my memory, how it feels to revisit it. This shift in how I relate to my memory must have started, if ever so gently, in that place.”

Doll Spirit Vessel’s What Stays is out now on Disposable America. They play World Cafe Live in Philadelphia with Florist and Marc Merza on Thursday, August 25th. Find their kooky videos for singles “Train Brain Rot” and “Something Small” below.

Doll Spirit Vessel - Train Brain Rot
Doll Spirit Vessel - Something Small