Proof that Dave Gurney’s TMT review of Cape Dory was not the ruination of their career, wife-and-husband team Tennis are back with album number two and look to break with the recent indie tradition of merely looking the part while pilfering the past. Admittedly, awarding this here release a three-point-oh dot approval rating may be inferred as a shade overgenerous, but I’m feeling in a benevolent mood toward Tennis today.
And why not? I’m all for giving second chances after initial missteps. The Tennis seafarer tale is often mentioned, so I will simply give my subjective capsule version: After sailing away for a several-month journey, Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore brought back enough sea shanties to record a debut album that flirted with potential but ultimately fizzled in a most disheartening fashion.
The pretty predictability that dampened Cape Dory’s shoreline serenades has been supplanted by something approaching high adventure on Young & Old. Blessed with a production by The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney that sounds like a million dollars but probably costs a lot less, many cuts try valiantly to distance themselves from the empty charms of the group’s nostalgia-driven, lo-fi early tracks.
Opening with “It All Feels the Same,” it suddenly all does feel the same — that is, until the song welcomes some nice stabs of raunch. From there, Tennis march confidently into “Origins,” the record’s first single and a great example of where Tennis’ developing mindset is at. The breezy jangle is still present, but there is, again, an addition of polished punch to the mix that elevates the track considerably. Elsewhere, however, Moore and Riley tend to get trapped into doing their best Saint Etienne, The Cardigans, and The Cardigans (reprise) dinner party impressions in “My Better Self,” “Traveling,” and “Robin,” respectively. Some tracks are little beauties, but others just trundle along; some impress, but others mope on by, unnoticed and unloved.
It’s not mean ’n’ sleazy, but Carney’s production help seems to have beefed- and balls’d-up the band’s catchy arrangements. Moore and Riley do not completely seduce from the soul or kick from the hips, but there is a fresh energy and fire throughout, particularly on tracks highlighting Moore’s increasingly versatile voice box. “Take Me to Heaven” and “Never to Part” put the seal on a fine pop record in a classy manner you might not expect from the duo, but one you secretly hoped for.
I suspect there will be plenty of indie pop misanthropes bemoaning the fact that Tennis have “matured.” I could bore you to tears with even more playful descriptions of the tracks on Young & Old, but that might weaken the point of this appraisal. Simply put, despite the cute back story of Cape Dory, Young & Old is the better record, although not by a nautical mile.
No, the duo has neither embraced dubstep nor expanded the thresholds of avant garde with Young & Old, but by employing poutier production and embracing an impulsive number of pop strategies, it has produced an album relatively free of tired “twee” anchors. It is still mostly sickly sweet sounds from Tennis, but the band must be commended for talking a bolder step the second time around. And I think it will be a continued upward progression. Tennis are quickly realizing that it makes for a more rewarding journey to soar with the eagles than to sink with the turkeys.