With Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), The Kinks built the ideal pop concept album by cannily constructing an entirely convincing post-colonial landscape out of a collage of musical idioms and cultural signifiers from across the Anglophone world. By layering tambourine and twanging guitars over hymnlike structures and juxtaposing kazoo with harpsichord, Ray Davies made scarcely 50 minutes of wax feel like it might contain centuries of world history. Indie pop crew Hospitality’s self-titled debut hints at that sort of thaumaturgy, although its subject — the directionless inanity of privileged post-collegiate life in New York City — limits the extent to which the elaborate instrumentation manages to create a compelling world.
“Eighth Avenue” starts us off with a case study in mid-aughts indie pop: nylon thrumming, snare-led rhythm, spare buoyant bass. Major chord to diminished chord. “Jazzy” in the broader sense (but not to the brave extent of Dan Bejar on last year’s Kaputt), or maybe slightly Bossa. Camera Obscura, Belle & Sebastian if you’re feeling generous. Frontwoman Amber Papini modulates her voice with a self-awareness that, while not anything approaching the realm of Joanna Newsom, doesn’t let us lose sight of the artifice of it all. Cue the drawbar organ. Drums build. Chorus. Verse with added oohs. Chorus. Fragmented bridge with squally David Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!) guitars. Break down to bass, cymbal hits, delay, and “doot-doo-doo”s. Add elements, build to chorus, simulated collapse. “Sloppy” finish. Feels orchestrated but spontaneous, massive but twee. It pops and shines thanks to the production work of Shane Stoneback, the guy who managed to make Sleigh Bells listenable and put some body behind the saccharine skitterings of Vampire Weekend.
And yet the song exudes a sort of terrifying inanity that, granted, is probably what the members of Hospitality are going for. You can really feel the personal claustrophobia that emerges when you realize that all the resources that’ve been fed into you from birth till college graduation have left you no less hopeless and boring. Analogously, the belabored and appealing arrangement of the track services lyrics like “Watch the computer/ Sit by the telephone.” It feels like so much has gone in and so little come out, and that’s both a flaw of Hospitality and its most interesting aspect.
Where Papini takes a more direct approach to these same concerns, things get awfully cloying awfully fast. The opening lines of “Liberal Arts” (“So you found the lock/ But not the key that college brings/ And all the trouble of your BA in English literature/ Instead of law, or something more practical”) bypass the droll or insightful on their way to being utterly obvious, and tom hits and pop-punk guitars can’t save her musings on the job market “The Right Profession” from woodenness. And yet the less limitingly twee moments of Hospitality edge on something genuinely expansive and Arthur-like. “The Birthday” goes for a stealth kill, slowly building aggression with a vaguely Slavic bounce and some keen lyrical moments (“Smoke on the mantle that sits on the ashtray”).
The number of place-names with historical NYC significance that pop up over the course of the album (Ellis Island, New Amsterdam, the Edison Hotel, etc) suggest a sprawling evocation of a world, but it’s a world furnished not with myth and allusion but only the pedestrian details of life after higher education. It captures the reality of that world but not the richness of experience with which one would inhabit it.