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Tennis – Young and Old

on February 13, 2012, 8:00am

The indie world has a difficult relationship with gimmick. When that gimmick gets called out for being trite, fake, what have you, a band can be instantly buried. When it’s done well, it might be accepted. Husband and wife duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, better known as Tennis, were such a success story. In the blink of an eye, they went from releasing adorable songs based on their sailing adventures to touring festivals and releasing a successful LP (last year’s too cute to sneer at Cape Dory). But, so much of the value of that first LP relied on that endearing gimmick that the follow-up is the true test of their staying power. What would come next once the well of sailing songs had been left behind? The answer to that question is Young & Old, an album that insists that this band is more than just cute sea shanties; that said, that delightfully twee pop is just too difficult to bury.

Simply put, Tennis’s cute gimmick beats every other band in the world’s cute gimmick, in that it seems to come from such a real place. Cape Dory certainly was gimmick, no matter the fact that husband and wife actually spent months on a boat, traveling and writing. The story was just too cute to deny, and going back to that same tone would seem to be too easy and worthwhile to avoid. However, being “the cute band” or “the sailing band” is to be typecast and isolated. The “cute” songs on this album are still the strongest, but the songs that show them stretching their wings are still worthwhile. Sure, there may be some awkward difference, but even those songs have their punch. On “High Road”, Moore’s lush, sweet voice rings out unconvincingly about frustrated love, but its thumping drums, twirling guitar, and rollicking melody still make it one of the more enjoyable songs of the bunch.

Produced by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Young & Old pulls off the equally difficult, opposite feat of its predecessor: While their first album felt varied despite being based in a single summer (the songs were all written on the couple’s seven-month sailing journey), this album feels united, flowing, even though Carney’s production flourishes carve out unique worlds for each song. The clonking synth and fuzzy, distant guitar solo of “Origins” couldn’t be more different from the silky, smooth piano and insistent maracas on “My Better Self”.

Moore’s voice may be the overarching unifier, her lithe coo grown in intensity in places from its precocious lovey-dovey warmth on Cape Dory. Whether it’s one of the trademark adorable songs or one that aims to challenge preconceptions, the effortless guiding force over the top keeps things constant. The falls and lilts on the 60’s pop/R&B “Petition” prove that she can do more than the saccharine, but head-bobbing familiarity of “Robin” immediately flowing feels completely natural, the worlds unified by that one, powerful constant.

The twist on prayer and rich sweetness of “Take Me to Heaven” proves that the closer Moore and Riley stick to the formula of Cape Dory, the better things turn out. While the tropes are all still familiar (the plinking piano, the sidelong reference to their boating, sweet lyrics, and Moore’s grand emotionality), there’s something undeniably bigger, fuller about the song. Carney’s production likely has something to do with it, the perfect mix of trembling upright piano in the emotive upswing and tingling synth at the climax. Plus, if given the choice between this and the denial of happiness on “High Road”, the choice is easy; there’s just something so right about her singing a line like “If all you say is true, then take me to heaven with you.”

The following conclusion may be super cheesy, but hey, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and it fits: The presentation and themes may awkwardly grow to eclipse the ultimately simple gimmick of the sailing trip, but the fact that the music is written by two talented people in love is something that can outlast the gimmick. It might take a while to find the precise percentage of cute in the mix, but it’s a process worth listening through.

Essential Tracks: “Petition”, “High Road”, and “Take Me to Heaven”

Feature artwork by Kristin Frenzel.