November 6, 2013

Test Spins: Tennis, Small Sound

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Tennis, a husband-wife duo, began in 2011 as a sort of gimmick of a band. Their entire debut album, Cape Dory, was based on a trip that wouldn’t sound out of place as the premise of a quirky, independent film: The two lovers sold all of their earthly possessions in order to buy a boat and sail up and down the Eastern Seaboard. This tagline-friendly origin story earned the group instant buzz among the indie music community, as tales of their epic voyage bounced from blog to blog. Every song was based on this journey, with lyrics often mentioning certain coves, bays or capes the two explored, or referencing the mechanics of sailing with call-outs to specific sails like the “jib” and the “main sheet.” With such ridiculous themes and a simplistic, albeit catchy and infinitely uplifting song structure, it is plain to see how the band could have fallen into one-trick-pony-esque obscurity.

However, with the release of sophomore album Young and Old, the group carved out a place for themselves amongst the indie-pop scene separate from their infamous nautical beginnings. The album proved that Tennis can take their chilled-out guitar and piano riffs off of the beach and focus on new subject matters while experimenting with a mature, differentiated sound.

In their latest EP, Small Sound, released Nov. 5 via the London-based Communion, the group benefits from the production assistance of Richard Swift, known for his work with The Shins and Foxygen. This addition is immediately noticeable and the EP’s five tracks come across as more musically complex — it includes an impressively diverse range of instrumentation that includes horns, synthesizers and layered vocals. In fact, these changes make certain songs sound like they come from an entirely different band when compared to the dulcet tones of 2011-era Tennis.

The most striking illustration of this evolution is evident in the track, “Cured of Youth.” This uncharacteristically aggressive number features a punching combined horn and guitar melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in a milder Black Keys song. Lead singer Alaina Moore’s ethereal voice soars over these riffs, slightly distorted and feistier than ever before, as she commands, “Here’s your one chance baby …  show the world your worth.” These lines represent a pretty significant departure from the sweetly romantic lyrical content of and style of albums past.  Similarly, title track “Mean Streets” shows a band that is confident enough in its talent to branch out from the familiar, while still holding on to the sunny guitar tones reminiscent of summer on the shore. Even when compared to Young and Old, this level of musical assertiveness represents the first step in a new and daring direction that the band is embarking upon.

If anything could stall this musical growth — not that a single song necessarily can — it would be the EP’s fourth track, “Dimming Light.” In it, Tennis falls back into its old comfort zone of lazily swelling guitar loops, but throws in a jolting refrain of cheesy piano chords and synthesized claps. These sections sound like struggling attempts at channeling the current trend of ’70s-inspired grooves, unsuccessfully blending a pared down version of their old beach-pop with interludes of genre-misfires.

That’s not to say that to say that a band should completely forget where they come from musically just for the sake of progress and “maturity” — a fact that Tennis proves they know on“Timothy” and “100 Lovers.” Both numbers showcase a number of thematic callbacks to their previous work, particularly Moore’s saccharine vocals and a preoccupation with love, requited and not. So, if the Small Sound EP is a check-up for Tennis between full-length albums, it certainly seems like, apart from one hiccup, the prognosis is positive.

Lucas Colbert is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]