Like former Merge band Camera Obscura, the first few strums of Hospitality's "Eight Avenue," which opens the band's new self-titled album, are a bit misleading. The quiet acoustics and simple percussion, not to mention Amber Papini's airy vocals all scream twee. And for a few minutes we are in a kind of plush bedroom pop world, something aware of how unassuming it is, something almost precious.
But if Hospitality is aware of its unassuming quality, that's because it also knows it's about to surprise you. Though those opening chords -- and a few other moments on the record -- hint at the group's earlier, stripped-down pop sound, the band's first record for Merge is surprisingly big, ambitious, and often hard to pin down. "Eight Avenue" blooms outward on thick keys and beds of guitar and strong drums, leaving behind that early quiet just as quickly as it can. "Friends of Friends" is about as catchy as pop tunes gets, but it coats guitars and keys in just a bit of crunch, and the drums clatter enough in the background to wrinkle the song before it irons itself out for the excellent, horn-accented chorus.
The band also proves itself capable of many different textures. "Julie" is a chilly folk ballad fit in between these bright pop tunes, and Papini's often threadbare vocals show a subtle range here, emoting with each nearly imperceptible shift in tone and volume. "The Right Profession" is suprisingly angular, twisting their normal sweet melodies into something more anxious and exciting. The gauzy "Sleepover" plays like a shadow to these other sunburst songs, while "The Birthday" has just enough classic-rock swamp to make it stand out.
So don't mistake Hospitality for some mere twee-pop act, because the trio has a dynamic sound, one that really doesn't fit a particular genre, but rather shapes itself around singer/songwriter Amber Papini's significant charms and talents. Though there are clear choruses and deep hooks, the songs squirm around in their structures, avoiding the dry stately pop of the likes of Belle & Sebastian. Though their sound immediately separates them from any "precious" tags pretty quickly, the songs can still occasionally feel overly clever. Papini often affects a faint British accent -- apparently she learned to sing by singing along with Psychedelic Furs records -- and it's actually quite charming when it's used sparingly. But at moments, particularly the start of "The Right Profession" or "Friends of Friends," she leans a bit too hard on it. In the same way, the album relies heavily on it's New York-ness. This is all well and good, considering the are a New York band, but sometimes the constant mentions and nods to the city feel a bit insular, like there's a handshake somewhere in these songs those of us outside of NYC aren't being taught.
These moments are few, though, and in the end Hospitality is a solid pop album through and through. This band pulls a convincing trick in presenting a soft, twee-pop front only to spend the rest of the album blowing up our first impression. As they continue to move further and further away from that first sound, towards more intricate melodies and lush instrumentation, things are only going to get better, more inviting.
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