My first reaction to the new Tennis album was incredulity. That can’t possibly be the album cover, can it? Someone took the next Vampire Weekend cover and changed the band name and title, right? Please? At least promise me that this isn’t full of the hair metal jams that the picture seems to suggest are found within. And after kicking through the album a few times, I’m still not sure where that cover came from.
Instead, the contents are exactly what anyone who enjoyed the EPs would hope, which is to say, even more of the same. They didn’t bump the production value, add unnecessary instrumentation, change their writing style or aesthetic. They took their concept/life plan and turned it into an album. For those that aren’t familiar with Tennis, the Denver-based husband/wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley put together the money for a sailboat, took to the East Coast on said boat for a few months, and wound up back home with a batch of songs about their experience. And also wound up with that undeniably, almost gaggingly adorable story for their press releases.
“Take Me Somewhere” contains everything great about Tennis. “Does the mainsheet remind you of me?” Moore coos over surfy guitar chords, her sailing terminology pairing perfectly with the rolling waves of wordless, girl-group harmonies, ’60s organ, and simple pop drumming. This isn’t the surf pop that dominated 2010. It isn’t the over-cool “waiting by the phone” of Best Coast or the super-fuzz of Dum Dum Girls (though they do share musical qualities). This isn’t about the crash of a wave on the beach, but pleasant, warm ocean air and a gently rocking boat. The opening arpeggio guitar line on “Long Boat Pass” rolls together, each note distinct yet overlapping into a wave of sound. There are plenty of married bandmates that don’t make music that sounds this blissful and adorable, but these two just sound so happy.
That said, the cuteness is pretty oppressive. “Take me out baby/I wanna go sail tonight,” Moore croons at the beginning of the title track, which does get an extra boost of rock on top of the originally released EP version. The drums are a little bigger; the harmonies are bigger, the synth higher in the mix. “Marathon”, though, was thankfully largely left alone. The happy, skipping, clap-along beat and saccharine, cove-hopping lyrics define a real pop gem. It’s sweet, fun, and ultimately accessible: the perfect formula for indie pop.
“Bimini Bay” slows things down considerably — the synths waltzing, the guitar loping along. Another previously recorded song, “South Carolina”, comes next, an old favorite by now. When Moore says that she wants to “make a family in the quiet country/You and me in simplicity,” it comes off as completely true and perfectly believable. I’m not sure if that’s just because of the band’s mythos, but I can’t help but think about how cute they are, and I’m not even one that regularly goes in for cute. Heck, I’ve avoided listening to She & Him like it would give me the plague. But this is somehow different. Maybe I’m just buying into the legend, but it’s a legend I want to buy into.
The album is paced perfectly. Slower-burning tunes like “Pigeon” (which sways along on bassy synth, lingering drums, and a buoyant, sliding lead guitar line) slot into their perfect place, never clogging up the progression. The wordless, cooing peak of that song, in fact, is one of the best moments on the disc. It’s a star moment for Moore, but Ripley’s cruising guitar is just as important to keeping the moment intact, wrapping it together.
This is a high-personality disc, one that avoids cliches and cheese while also being steeped in tradition and an immense dose of adorableness. “Water Birds” closes the disc in some major pomp, the cymbals clangoring out like they’ve not done before, the guitar chugging, everything piling together into a major ballad. That closure, that big-ness, is the perfect conclusion to this disc, their celebration of the completion of a journey. And yes, I’m buying into the legend. Happily.