Indie pop for indie pop scholars.
Trouble is like a blurry camera grabbing brief glimpses of perfect focus. Unlike Hospitality’s self-titled debut, which was mindful of the twee pop rule book – it came with bright, clear acoustic guitars, the oldest keyboards played on the funniest settings, panoramic views distilled through harmonies, and a song called “Liberal Arts” – it sounds disguised. Its hooks take longer to materialise, and where a song might once have burst forward, like an opening band vying for the attention of a bored crowd, here they slink into place. Muted chords are one of the record’s most distinguished features, and the guitar riffs that eventually open up songs meander, looking out to empty space rather than towards the best pop song. It’s the work of a once sweetly memorable band trying to make something a little too unsettling to be flavour of the year, to be fleeting. And it works – Trouble is still on my mind.
The year 2012 is a memory now, and although it lingers in Amber Papini’s songwriting – the hasty, cut ‘n’ pace chorus of “I Miss Your Bones” calls back the continuous uplift of “Betty Wang” – Trouble is most fascinating when it happens in smaller shades. “Nightingale”, the record’s opener, attempts to strike first, with one ferocious chord and an enthused vocal interrogation from Papini. It sounds like Hospitality redux, for a few hopeful seconds, but the song reroutes into something altogether more trippy: scorched rock ‘n’ roll riffing, sustained synth in the backdrop, and a meditative sequence that allows Papini’s lyrics to echo through empty space. The song tries on a dozen different twee psychedelics, unsatisfied with any one particular mode. That’s what makes it winning, though; it’s a bumpy, caustic take on Hospitality, and it opens a record that lingers longer in the memory as a result.
Trouble works so well because it never settles. It takes on the challenge of becoming a primarily electronic record in one moment and becomes adorably New Wave at the next. It tries to hawk on classic rock with more commitment than its predecessor did, and later attempts the big, slow sound put forward by British soap opera acts like Daughter and London Grammar. For the most part, it succeeds in putting the band’s style into these giddy hypothetical situations. “Sullivan” is its greatest asset, a barely-lyrical ballad made in a huge empty space, is composed with a minimalist’s touch; it introduces its rhythm section, who plays softly and sympathetically, like they were a clock that just started ticking. The piano is modest, too, only used a few steady notes at a time, but the acoustics make it the song’s focus. Unlike its influences – it sounds like it could be on If You Wait, sequenced right after “Strong” – “Sullivan” doesn’t have a propulsive moment. Its guitars don’t anchor towards anything; the song instead spends its last 40 seconds being closed out. There’s a sense, here, in which Hospitality balance their interest in experimenting with pop songs and their affection towards the tropes – these songs are well calibrated, and in brief moments, they feel like more than that.
Trouble floats between indifference and vitality. “Going Out” moves from its suppressed, muffled guitar and sleepy percussive backbone into a suddenly uplifting chorus – most striking, though is Papini’s voice, which shifts from monotone to a bright hum in the space between verse and chorus. At first, “Going Out” is just being kept afloat, made robust, but its groove takes it – the drums become something more playful and shaken, and the small instrumental flourishes that flow through its chorus shine some light onto a record that sounds like it’s been made in beige. That’s a good way of thinking about Trouble, ultimately: it’s a scholarly kind of indie pop record, one with an obvious single, a few grey and fascinating experiments, and a number of greatly revealing moments. And hey, if you need them, “Sunship” has horns. They just don’t sound like summer and the good ol’ feeling that life’s grand. On that particular note, Trouble and Hospitality agree to disagree.