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Big-time Hospitality

The Brooklyn band releases an unintentionally twee debut full-length

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Dreams do come true: Hospitality - PHOTO COURTESY OF KYLE DEAN REINFORD

When Amber Papini was a teen-ager, she taught herself to sing by emulating Richard Butler, specifically on the Psychedelic Furs record Talk Talk Talk. "I was listening to some tapes of some songs I wrote when I was 18, and my voice is so low," Papini says, laughing. "It's funny. I just didn't have my own voice when I was a teen-ager." She has since developed a warm, elegant voice of her own — though traces of Butler's English accent still come through here and there — and now fronts the Brooklyn-based band Hospitality. 

The Kansas City native, like many of us who grow up in moderately-sized Midwestern cities, romanticized New York as a child. When her sister, Gia, moved to Brooklyn years later, Papini followed. 

Though Papini admits that New York did not quite live up to her cinema-fueled vision, Hospitality's self-titled full-length, which comes out on Merge Records at the end of the month, is rich with melancholy romance, for which the city provides a vivid backdrop.

When Hospitality formed, more than five years ago, its lineup included both Papini sisters and Nathan Michael, a freelance composer who, when Amber met him at a college party, had already released some well-regarded electronic records on Tigerbeat 6 and Sonig. Later they were joined by Brian Betancourt, who'd been a fan of Michael's. 

Then followed several rounds of lineup musical chairs: During a given practice, band members might all play guitar, or Gia and Amber played keyboards while Nathan and Brian played guitar and bass. Eventually, Gia left the band and the remaining members settled on a steady configuration: Papini on guitar, Michael on drums, and Betancourt on bass. 

They then began building a reputation on their catchy, refined pop. Hospitality played small Brooklyn venues, then moved on to larger venues and bars, at which point "we had to sort of change our instrumentation," Papini recalls. "Nathan was kind of playing percussion; he wasn't playing a proper drum kit. His cymbals were just casually propped up against his bass drum, and Brian was playing bass out of a guitar amp and I was playing a classical acoustic guitar, which became problematic in bars, because the louder we got the more feedback there was." 

It was one of their fans — a director who'd made music videos for Merge artists like Superchunk and Eleanor Friedberger — who sent some of Hospitality's tracks to that label. "And, well, yeah, they said they liked it," Papini says with a hint of bewilderment. "It's really surprising and exciting, and a dream come true because we've all been Merge fans for a long time. I remember buying Superchunk records in high school, and listening to Polvo."

Hospitality's full-length follows 2009's self-titled EP — which, Papini says, "really represents that first configuration of Hospitality. We slowly started to change the sound over the last few years." Where the EP has a wintery meandering feel, the songs on the new record are a little more hi-fi and more tightly constructed. The term "twee" — which refers to a particularly darling strain of indie pop — has been bandied about in articles about Hospitality, and indeed, Hospitality's opening track, "Eighth Avenue," sounds like it could have been written by the Rolling Stones of twee, Belle and Sebastian. 

"We didn't know what it was until people started describing our music as twee," Papini says, though she doesn't mind being couched with bands like Belle and Sebastian. "We thought it had something to do with the lo-fidelity and ramshackle quality of the EP, but we're still being described as that with the new tracks." 

One of the record's many gems, "Betty Wang" — named for a bank manager Papini worked with, and who became a mentor of sorts — deals with the isolation women often find in male-dominated work environments. "I'm trying to explain a feeling of outsider-ness," says Papini, who today works as a second-grade teacher. "There was this culture of playing golf among the men; none of the female managers played golf." Accordingly, "Betty Wang" is like the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, only it doesn't expect anyone to turn the world on with their smile.

Indie rock is one of Brooklyn's main exports, but thanks to idiosyncratic, memorable melodies and empathetic lyrics, Hospitality may very well set the band apart. "I really believe in the music and I always believed that someone would like it and want to champion it," Papini says. "[The songs are] about just trying to find your way, finding where you fit in. I think that's what interests me most about life."


HOSPITALITY with MADLINE AND THE METROPOLIS, SPORTS METAPHORS. 9 p.m. Tue., Jan. 17. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net

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