Nostalgia for the Brill Building sound is running high these days. Look no further than The New Pornographers’ first release in four years, Brill Bruisers, or the entire discography of the Denver indie pop duo Tennis. While that lush, vibrant sound offers an undeniably solid and well-respected cadre of influences, the irony in this nostalgia lies in how antithetical the Brill Building pop ethos was and is to the modern indie DIY philosophy. In those bygone days, creative power primarily rested in the hands of publishers and record labels, while artists were salespeople for a premade product aimed directly toward the ears (and wallets) of young, rapt listeners.
Fast-forward half a century or so, and groups like Tennis are still playing for an audience of idealistic young people, but have taken the sound out of executive offices and into their own bedrooms and living rooms. This married duo’s origin story, both as a couple and a band, is becoming the stuff of myth: After meeting in Colorado, they sold their worldly possessions, purchased a sailboat, and spent the next seven months on an East Coast nautical journey. This expedition informed their previous releases, particularly 2011’s Cape Dory, and their runaway hit from that album, “Marathon”, fits as much seafaring imagery as humanly possible into a two-and-a-half-minute ditty about the dangers of running aground.
With Ritual in Repeat, Tennis seem eager to prove that they can do more, an effort they started with 2012’s Young and Old. Alaina Moore is blessed with a lovely and ethereal — yet powerful — voice that doesn’t have to reach or strain for much of anything. For the first time, there is a hard rock sensibility underpinning Moore and husband Patrick Riley’s pop-minded efforts, thanks to producers Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Jim Eno (Spoon), and Richard Swift (The Shins). The overall result, though, is even more unlabored, free, and effortless than ever before, because while sailing may seem idyllic in theory, in practice it is frequently anything but, as Moore and Riley discovered.
Not every track on Ritual in Repeat reaches the blissed-out fever pitch of “Bad Girls”, a four-and-a-half-minute slow burner that builds to a stunning crescendo, showcasing Moore’s voice to perfection. Even the songs that don’t, however, command their own gravity. “Even bad girls have tender hearts/ Even bad girls can fall apart,” she sings, and it feels evocative in a way that’s not kitschy or precious. The reverb-heavy notes of Riley’s guitar underscore tambourine chimes and a chorus of wordless backing vocals. It’s unclear what the connection between Moore and the lyrics are — she switches from third to first person somewhere around the three-minute mark, explaining that she “loves the ceremony, that’s why I chose matrimony” — but every word is given the hard sell, and in this context, as in the context of the Brill Bruisers, it really, really works.
More than anything else, Tennis sound truly powerful on this album: in Moore’s voice, in Riley’s guitar, in the heavy snare hits of “Night Vision” and “Never Work for Free”. This is a band that has matured and one that has clearly worked hard to perfect the sound showcased on Ritual in Repeat. In the months leading up to its release, Moore and Riley have talked about how they conquered a severe period of creative drought and writer’s block by simply pushing through, forcing themselves through a daily routine of reading, writing, and guitar and piano playing that they stuck to, no matter how mundane it became. This slow work became the album’s bones, and it ultimately provided the new, polished, heavier sound that stops short of being fussy. It’s an inspiring story to anyone who has ever suffered through any kind of creative frustration, and it’s proof positive that Tennis are in this game for the long haul.
Essential Tracks: “Bad Girls”, “Night Vision”, and “Never Work for Free”