Trouble, Hospitality’s sterling sophomore record, announces itself by proffering a warning.
“If you go to sleep, dear,” warns guitarist and singer Amber Papini on “Nightingale,” “you’ll see ghosts in your bed.” Later, she cautions against other mythical creatures—sirens, vampires—that threaten sleepers.
But Papini said the trouble that inspired the record is a bit more existential.
“It refers to the trouble in the artistic process of a band, writing and collaborating and producing stuff,” Papini said. “But sometimes, you run into a lot of uncertainty. We were more referring to the trouble of making music or making a record. It’s a troubling experience.”
On its lithe and intelligent 2012 debut, the New York trio set cleverly worded, mapless, mid-20s ennui atop jangly, peppy melodies, and sprightly, shuffling drums.
It was winsome and tidy and wholly charming—which worked against the band as much as it benefited it. Hospitality’s sophisticated wit and charisma were well-received, but often misinterpreted as twee affectations. More than one backhanded review described the band by invoking warm blankets and soft clothing. “Put on their self-titled debut on Merge,” the website Capital New York damned with faint praise, “and your earbuds will automatically grow cardigans.”
“There was a lot of darkness and cynicism that no one really picked up on,” said Papini. “But you can’t really control that. What can you do?”
No one will be calling Trouble twee. If Hospitality’s debut was a cardigan, Trouble is a leather jacket. The songs are grittier: the single “I Miss Your Bones” stomps, Papini’s herky-jerk chord progression propelled by the stout rhythm section of bassist Brian Betancourt and drummer Nathan Michel, who ends the song with a Keith Moon-ish outburst. (Michel and Papini are also married.) “Going Out” deploys a confident, sexy strut, a dusky downtown vibe that’s far from Hospitality’s prior Ivy League awkwardness. “Nightingale” shows off its hardiness with a crunchy, Neil Young-ish intro before taking a left turn into a bluesy vamp and then another into a dark, spare waltz.
“We definitely wanted a minimal, darker, natural-sounding record,” Papini said. “We wanted to take our time with the arrangements and how the songs unfolded.”
On the eponymous first record, Papini said, “We didn’t have a lot of say on how it sounded. We were on a budget. We just gave it to the guy who produced it and recorded it, and we trusted him. But [on Trouble] we had more time to work on the sound.”
To that end, the songs on Trouble are also far more nuanced, working with a far wider tone palette. Synthesizers and electronics play a large role on Trouble, a testament to the arrangements of Michel, who recorded several albums of lo-fi electronic pop on Tigerbeat6. “Rockets and Jets,” an otherwise Smiths-ish pop song, is marked by a steady curtain of synthesizers. “Inauguration” is also draped in synths, its insistent keyboard line buttressed by a minimal beat.
Elsewhere, acoustic instruments flourish. “Sunship” features a gorgeously marbled trumpet solo over its Nick Drake-ish chord progression. Album closer “Call Me After” is a quiet acoustic torch ballad.
Then there’s “Last Words,” which fires all of the band’s disparate cylinders. It’s the group’s most adventurous excursion into electronic music to date. Its pulsing programmed beat is understated and driving (recalling Krautrock’s steady motorik), topped with hazy keyboard lines and gauzy synthesizer swells. But it features the record’s most exciting instrumental moment—a discordant and angular guitar solo delivered by Michel.
“We always sort of follow our heart,” Papini said. “And I think we have a lot of different musical sides, and we wanted to show a different side and pursue different topics and musical timbres and minor keys. Just kind of somber modes.”
The broad breadth of the album doesn’t come across as haphazard, doesn’t paint the band as rudderless dilettantes. (To wit: To cover all that ground live, the group tours with a fourth member.) Even though the songs are diverse, Papini asserted, “there still is a singular voice and message, and there is a cohesiveness in the production.”
That’s likely a result of the band’s intense writing process. Where there was a four-year gap between Hospitality’s first EP and its self-titled debut, Trouble was written relatively quickly, during sessions in its rehearsal space. In the sessions, the band sought to take its music as far as it possibly could as a trio, to make sure that every small gesture fell into place and played a vital role in constructing the shape and feel of the songs.
“The idea was that we were going to prepare ourselves, and that’s why we were so regimented,” Papini says. “We thought we were just going to have them prepared and just go and record them.”
“‘I Miss Your Bones,’ came out how it was worked out in that cold rehearsal space,” said Papini. “But not every song translated so easily. ‘Inauguration’ and ‘Rockets and Jets,’ for example, were ripped apart and reconstructed with drum machines and synthesizers.”
The process produced the band’s most satisfying record so far. “Making a record is really difficult,” she added. “It’s a lot harder than writing songs. It’s a hard-ass job.”
But for Hospitality, it seems like no trouble at all.