February 23, 2012

Test Spins: Tennis, Young and Old

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Everything about husband-wife indie pop duo, Tennis, comes off as carefree and spontaneous. The name of their band, for instance, comes from an inside joke the two shared while in college. Then there is the now well-publicized trip that became the creative inspiration for the band’s debut album, Cape Dory. After falling in love as philosophy majors at The University of Colorado Denver, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley promptly sold all their earthly possessions, flew down to Florida and, after a week of sailing lessons, purchased a Cape Dory sailboat. They then proceeded to sail up and down the Atlantic Ocean until they ran out money.

The flipside to this sensational backstory, however, is the way that the buzz it generated for the group has almost eclipsed their actual music. Reviews of their work tend to obsess over this admittedly unique aspect of the band rather than focusing on the album’s artistic merit. This is an imbalance that they attempt and ultimately succeed in correcting in their new album — a deliberate departure from their debut that makes the music, not the story, the focus. In this way, their second album, Young & Old is the product of the band’s evolution toward musical maturity. In it, Tennis pulls together a new, more vaied sound that showcases their slightly more “rock-like” (possibly influenced by producer, Patrick Carney — drummer of The Black Keys) persona, but still hangs on to the right amount of their signature easy-going beach pop.

A major reason behind the altered sound in Young & Old is the very different themes it encompasses. Whereas Cape Dory was essentially the musical documentation of the pair’s seafaring journey, Young & Old ambitiously touches upon some pretty major topics, including the progression of life and the search for happiness. In this sense, the album triumphs, by bringing a degree of lyrical substance and emotional range into the mix that were seriously lacking in their first attempt. While visual descriptions of oceanic views and experiences are nice for a while, eventually the tracks seem to blur together as upbeat guitar strumming bled into upbeat guitar strumming. They move away from the blissful ignorance of a utopian summer, delving into issues of imperfection as demonstrated in the line “Paradise is all around, but happiness is never found”.

With their second album, Tennis, for the most part, delivers an array of varied stand-alone tunes that, as a result, are much more memorable on an individual level. These changes are reflected most notably in some of the album’s moodier songs such as “My Better Self” and “Petition”. Here, Moore loses her usual swoons in favor of a deeper, more textural tonality that at times almost sounds gospel-like. These titles, along with “Origins” and “Take Me To Heaven” are probably the farthest from Tennis’ original early 60’s pop moniker, but they are also the strongest on the album. The most impressive aspect of this is the way in which they are able to almost completely reinvent themselves musically.

Tennis also continues the growing trend of university-educated scholar-rockers, joining the ranks of Vampire Weekend and MGMT (Columbia and Wesleyan University alums respectively). The status of these groups as just-out-of-college intellectuals has a clear impact on the academic level of references within their music. Just as Vampire Weekend wrote an entire song about frustrations with Oxford Commas, the inspiration behind Tennis’ new album title was the poem, “A Woman Young and Old”, by William Yeats —  not exactly common knowledge. Despite the intellectually lofty source material, the group insists that the idea behind Young and Old is not to “preach to the listener”, but to have the work be open to interpretation.

In tracks like “Robin” and “It All Feels the Same” the band unfortunately seems to drift back to the lazy rhythms and uninspired lyrics that were a problem in Cape Dory. Their construction is formulaic and predictable, but this issue is not widespread. Some songs follow the general design of Cape Dory-era peppy summertime ballads and are still very good. “Deep in the Woods” features Moore’s swoony as always vocals telling a tale of unrequited love while in the background, maracas sway to the beat. The difference here is how they have tweaked and built upon this basic format, elevating it to new heights. The track begins with thunderous and catchy piano chords that make for a strong base — making it more substantial than the wispy songs of the previous album. All in all, with Young and Old, Tennis improves upon what they had, while still holding on to a version of the simple, honey-sweet sound that earned them fans in the first place

Original Author: Lucas Colbert-Carreiro