Tennis is a band that was born out of a concept, rather than vice versa. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley lived what many might consider a dream for several months. Married and finished with college, they sold their possessions and bought a sailboat, then leisurely traversed up the East Coast on it. Consider it almost the alternative to spending a year backpacking in Europe. Their adventures and intense time spent together inspired them along with their shared love of music led to the creation of Cape Dory, their debut album. It was a fun little indie pop record that in many ways was a musical scrapbook of their trip, given that all the songs related to experiences they had and feelings felt during that time. Considering the duo has been touring almost nonstop since their album came out 13 months ago, it’s something of a wonder they found the time to write and record a follow-up. Even then, without a sailing excursion to mine for material, what would they come up with for the all-too-important sophmore effort? And though their first singles were lifted on the wings of blog hype, their debut wasn’t nearly as well-received as they might have hoped for. Does that put more or less pressure on them to make a great second album? With The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney in the producers chair and drummer James Barone being upgraded to full-time band member, Tennis’ new record Young and Old seems out to prove the band is better and broader than two people in love on the high seas.
“Took a train to/took a train to get to you,” Moore sings as the very first lines on opening track “It All Feels the Same”. Unintentional though it may be, there is a certain parallel to be drawn between that and the sailboats dominating all of Cape Dory. Fear not, friends; Young and Old is not a record about train travel or really any form of transportation. The song “Traveling” is sort of the lone exception in that regard. In fact, this new album is in many ways the topical opposite of the last one. Cape Dory was all about beautiful locales and a couple in love with the sea and one another. The relationship between Moore and Riley may be as strong as ever, but they’re either no longer writing songs about their own experiences or are trying to expose us to another side of things on the new record. “Paradise is all around, but happiness is never found,” Moore somberly professes on “High Road”. Emotions run high throughout the record, and there’s plenty of turmoil to go around which gives Moore the chance to show off her range on multiple levels. “How much is required to set things right?/Have you confused your power with might?” she emphatically interjects on “Origins”, while on “Take Me to Heaven” she wishes she could believe in an afterlife: “My mistakes, imperfections, they make me long for a place where they can’t overtake me.”
Dark as this album might be lyrically, the songs on Young and Old are far catchier and uptempo than you might expect. There were a few outright misses on Cape Dory that felt more like padding between the hits, but virtually everything on the new album stands well on its own and could be considered a potential future single. One of the bigger reasons why that’s the case is the sheer muscle and sonic building the band displays this time. The guitars are stronger and are covered in an extra layer of fuzz, the drums are far more forceful and the piano works itself higher into the mix. Patrick Carney deserves some credit for how he pushed the band in the studio, though you’ve got to wonder how many of these new adjustments came about organically through time spent performing on the road. Even a quieter and more somber track like “My Better Self” has a bit of oomph and insistence to it, infused with handclaps for good measure. Moore’s vocals get an upgrade too, with plenty more backing harmonies and “ooh oohs”, or in the case of “Petition”, some very retro “sha la las”. It all contributes towards helping Tennis sound quite a bit like a lighter, poppier version of Beach House, which is by no means a bad thing.
As delightful and forward-moving as Young and Old is, it in many ways feels like a stepping stone for Tennis. Their debut album proved they could write at least a few strong pop songs. This new record proves they were more than just a flash in the pan and are invested in career longevity. It features a fair amount of growth for the band, but it lacks true sonic innovation. We’ve heard songs like these before, though arguably never delivered with quite the same scalpel-like precision and overall catchiness that they are here. This trio is talented to be sure, and it’s great to hear them moving past boat stories and unveiling new layers, but they’re not quite where they need to be just yet. They can do better, though getting there might just require taking some serious sonic risks and alienating what’s currently an expanding fan base. If success is all they desire, Young and Old is another grand investment towards achieving massive popularity. If it’s genuine respectability they’re aiming for, they’re inching towards that too. For most, a crossroads will emerge where they’ll be forced to choose one or the other. Play your cards right though, and you can have both. Look forward to Tennis’ next record, it’ll probably be the one that either makes or breaks them.