Lips like sugar: In defense of nice music | Music Essay | Indy Week
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Lips like sugar: In defense of nice music 

Of all the unintentionally backhanded compliments one could offer regarding someone's endeavors, the one that's the most pleasant might actually sting the most: "It's ... nice."

Part pat on the back, part nonchalant shrug, that sentence is the kind of middle-of-the-road praise adults offer unfamiliar children when they're too distracted to pay attention or too demure to even flirt with content that might be deemed offensive. For artists, being known as "nice" means that you're competent and possibly skilled, but you're also not doing anything to elicit a passionate response, positive or otherwise. You're the watercolor, hanging on the wall.

Sometimes it's better to be completely awful and inept, as the recent success and infamy of cult films like The Room or Birdemic have reminded us. Incompetence isn't tolerated as much when it comes to music (at least as you approach the mainstream, Rebecca Black notwithstanding). Still, it's better to evoke an emotion—anger, sadness, jubilation, even disgust or righteous indignation—than to be dismissed as merely nice.

When your band is called Hospitality, you're almost asking to be called nice before the first note is played. Sure, the handle would be a perfectly ironic cover for some low-minded noise or metal band of merry pranksters, but this Brooklyn trio (recently signed to Merge Records) indeed offers the sort of light and charming indie-pop that such a name suggests. When they play Local 506 this week, they'll open for Tennis, a Denver-based trio most notable for Cape Dory, a quaint debut filled with agreeable girl-groupish tunes about a sailing voyage taken by keyboardist and singer Alaina Moore and guitarist Patrick Riley.

The above adjectives—quaint, agreeable, light, charming—are belabored attempts to avoid the N-word; it's just too obvious. Almost everything that makes up these groups is, intentionally or otherwise, geared to seem nice. Each group includes a married couple. Each of the front women is a capable if unremarkable singer. Both bands' music is brisk without being overly aggressive. The lyrics deal with affairs of the heart and more quotidian concerns. Both Tennis and Hospitality do what they do very well, an observation often obscured by the notion that what they're doing is neither inspiring nor pioneering.

But it's all too easy for music to trigger feelings and emotions that aren't earned; consider bathetic string-and-melisma-laden ballads or manipulative movie soundtracks. To thread the delicate needles that Tennis and Hospitality favor is as much a laudable skill as to invoke an emotion that feels authentic. Cape Dory might be worthy of the pejorative connotations that "nice" brings to mind, as writing a semi-conceptual album about a young married couple's uneventful sailing adventure will do that. But with help from producer and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, their latest, Young and Old, adds a little Spectorian Wall-of-Sound punch and propulsion to Tennis' already capable songs. The bigger sound gives Moore's voice a grain to work against. And on Hospitality's self-titled debut, the voice of Amber Papini comes pre-equipped with that agreeably abrasive texture. The way it can curl around a word or impart a line with a little extra bite adds a wry wrinkle to songs that gradually reveal more than what's immediately apparent.

Such mild subversion isn't the sort of thing that music with its heart firmly on its sleeve can always pull off. Being "nice," then, becomes freeing, allowing riches and rewards to be tucked into tidy corners, not broadcast with total bombast.

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