Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Chilly Welcome From Hospitality

Amber Papini in NYC
Amber Papini could probably order coffee with a cadence that would stick in your head for days. Though the singer from Hospitality is from Kansas City, MO, she has an unusual relationship to vowels and her consonants often have a crisp anglophonic sound. The end result is that the hooks in the band's perfectly composed songs have captivating little hooks of their own, but never in a self-consciously quirky way. She's never trying to be different - she just is. While she's a very talented musician, probably the best thing that could have happened to her was hooking up with Nathan Michel, a Berklee grad with a degree in electronic music (he's "obsessed with Stravinsky," apparently), whose training may help lend a compositional rigor to Hospitality's sound.

Their charming debut album from 2012 featured a highly detailed (some have called it Baroque) production that seems to not have been entirely of their choosing, as hinted at by the rawer sounds of The Drift and Monkey, two songs released later that year. Also, some of songs dated back to as far as 2007, before family issues sidelined Papini's career for a couple of years, so their concerns might not have been as up to the minute as they sounded, at least in relation to the lives of Papini and Michel and their bass-playing compatriot Brian Betancourt.

So now we have the follow-up, called Trouble, produced by Michel with Matt Boynton, and sounding like a sleeker take on the sound of The Drift. Nightingale opens the album with big chords and a tough riff from Papini's guitar that alternates with delicate cello-infused verses. The lyrics, rather than sounding like a plot-line from Girls (nothing wrong with that), delve poetically into that dark terrain where childhood tales mingle with adult realities. This theme is picked up in Going Out, with it's dress-up imagery ("Ruffled dresses and parasols") leading to our heroine walking home alone as the "rain rolls down/like an empty sound." The mood is leavened by some nifty handclaps and percussion as the song plays out. Betancourt's limber, melodic bass proves itself essential here, as it does throughout the album.

While Trouble still has some of the enveloping warmth of the first album, there's an intriguing chill at its core, like an icy stare from a friend you inadvertently offended. Even for all that, Hospitality's pop instincts are even more well-honed. Rockets And Jets toys with synth-pop and becomes more of a companion to my life with each listen. Like all great songs, you miss it when it ends. The bleakest moments on the album come in Last Words, also the longest track and one of two Papini co-wrote with Michel. "I took a boat to Eden," she sings in the second verse, "The priest was there to greet me on the sand/He led me to a gate/You enter once but never leave again/These brackish waves/Surround me and I have no exit." Pulling that blanket tighter yet?

Last Words leads into the stunning melancholy of Sunship, the other co-write, which has the largest ensemble on the record as the core trio is joined by trumpet, cello and flute. Like five other songs on Trouble, Papini calls on water, either from the sky or in the sea, in her evocative lyrics. These ancient tropes shore up the classicism of Hospitality's approach as, like Spoon, another great band on Merge Records, they seek not to reinvent the canon but to add to it. Also like Spoon, their 10 song album is concise but never feels slight. The last song, Call Me After, features Papini solo and feels entirely complete. If she ever does find herself alone - as her characters do in four of the songs on Trouble - you get the distinct idea she'll be fine. And there's your comfort, cold though it may be.
I took my daughter and her friend, both ninth graders, to see Hospitality at The Greene Space. As we waited to enter, a woman (who turned out to be Michel's mother - and Papini's mother-in-law) asked me if the girls were in the string quartet. I had no idea what she was talking about until we sat down and, after some remarks, Helga Davis introduced Pannonia, a string quartet made up of high school students from the Face The Music Program. In the collaborative spirit of the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival, which was kicked off with this concert, Hospitality would be performing with the young musicians for part of the show.

Not surprisingly, it sounded terrific. As Michel remarked when asked about working with the quartet, "I think that Amber's songs can live in a lot of different worlds, and so it was actually a pretty natural translation from the rock band format." Even though he admitted to having little experience in arranging for strings, his adaptations of Rockets And Jets, Nightengale, and Sunship from Trouble, and Argonauts from the first album, flowed beautifully and captured the emotional tenor of each song perfectly. Pannonia also performed his first string quartet, Offshore (there's the ocean again), which was short and to the point and melodically redolent of classic American composers like Copland and Ives. The quartet played beautifully as well - obviously Face The Music is working wonders.

Hospitality finished the night with a short set as a band and while they didn't stretch out a lot, they did push some of the dissonant and abrasive leanings of Trouble slightly to the fore, while beefing up the older songs a bit. Besides his arranging skills, Michel is a triple-threat on stage, handling guitar, drums and keyboard with ease. Papini was assured on the keyboard as well and proved herself dynamic and occasionally explosive on guitar, while Betancourt wielded his Hofner bass with aplomb. They were aided by an unnamed drummer who stayed in the pocket and switched to keyboard as necessary. So, the "rock band format" was a success as well for Hospitality - no trouble at all.

Watch Hospitality and Pannonia at The Green Space below and keep an eye out for them in your town.

1 comment:

  1. o their concerns won't have been as as much as the minute as they sounded, at the least in relation to the lives of Papini and Michel and their bass-taking part in compatriot Brian Betancourt.