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Tuned In: Jena Friedman

photo by David Szymanski
Tuned In is a feature in which special guests from the world of pop culture share a playlist of songs based on a topic or theme of their choice.

Jena Friedman is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. She’s been a field producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer. She’s written for The Late Show with David Letterman, and is currently hard at work on her first film Serial Dater, starring Imogen Poots and John Cho. She wrote and is directing that one. So yeah, you could say that she’s got a lot of talents, and has been putting them all to good use. It’s left her plate very full, yet you might not know it because she’s not in front of the camera that often.

On a personal level, I found out about Jena Friedman a few years back via her stand-up comedy. She is tremendously funny and possesses that rare quality of being able to make you laugh about some of the darkest and most challenging topics facing our world today. Her recent, pre-election stand-up special American Cunt dives headfirst into politics, feminism, abortion, guns and religion without losing sight of our shared humanity no matter what your personal opinions might be.

After getting her start in comedy here in Chicago more than a decade ago, Jena Friedman is coming back to town next Friday, June 2nd for a set at her old stomping grounds, The Hideout. It is part of the Onion/A.V. Club’s 4th Annual “26th Annual Comedy Festival,” and promises to be a hilarious late night of stand-up with plenty of whip-smart insight about the pitch black turn our world has taken in recent months.

Jena Friedman
Friday, June 2nd at The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia Ave.)
10:30 PM / $15 / 21+
Buy Tickets

Album Review: Tennis – Young and Old [Fat Possum]

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.

Tennis – Origins

Tennis – My Better Self

Buy Young and Old from Amazon

Album Review: Tennis – Cape Dory [Fat Possum]

Every band or artist has a story about how things came together and began to make music in earnest. Oftentimes those stories are boring, or at the very least have a lot of the same elements to them. The group of guys that met in high school or college. The band whose members all live in the same neighborhood and it’s a proximity thing. There’s also the couples, two people dating or married that decide to make beautiful music together. Mates of State, Handsome Furs and Beach House are all fair examples of pretty good “relationship duos”. The White Stripes are really interesting because while they’re a duo, they’re also divorced. Sometimes the bond of music really can be stronger than love. The one pairing you’ll want to be paying close attention to in 2011 is that of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore. They call themselves Tennis, and have a surprisingly interesting formation story. Both had spent time making music with various bands, none of which attracted much of any attention. Despite their backgrounds, music was the last thing on their minds when Riley and Moore met in college, began dating and eventually married. She didn’t realize that he played the guitar and he didn’t realize she could sing. All they really wanted to do was take an adventure. After severely sacrificing and saving as much money as they could over the course of a few years, the couple had enough to buy a boat. With said boat they made the decision to take a two-year journey down the Atlantic coastline. They joked around for a bit during their voyage about starting a band, but didn’t begin to take it seriously until one night at a bar in Florida. They heard the Shirelles song “Baby It’s You”, and Riley said that if he was ever in a band again, he’d want it to sound exactly like that. From that point forward, they worked out all the details, including the exact instruments and recording equipment they wanted to use. The two-year trip was cut short at eight months, taken off course so they could focus their time and efforts on Tennis. Their original idea was to write songs about the trip as a way to remember those fun times, but it was also therapeutic after they left said trip unfinished. After a couple songs made their way online, the hype for the duo accelerated very quickly. Two seven-inch singles released on Firetalk and Underwater Peoples Records last summer only built up the band’s reuptation further, and they played their first-ever live shows around that time as well. This past fall they signed with Fat Possum for their debut full-length “Cape Dory”, which is out now.

What’s attracted so many people to Tennis, and why even more will come on board once they hear “Cape Dory”, are the sunny pop melodies and winning hooks that emerge at every turn. They’re constantly compared to Best Coast and Surfer Blood for that exact reason, and apt though it may be, they’re a bit more than that. Given that a Shirelles song was the inspiration for them to start the band in the first place, Tennis’ sound has a very 1950s-60s girl group vibe to it, but with a small modern twist. Pay close attention to Patrick Riley’s guitar work and you may catch some chord progression similar to artists like The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry. At times there are also very obvious surf rock vibes being thrown around, all part of holding down a very relaxed, summery vibe. Bits of organ have their place in a majority of the songs as well, and with that added shimmer you might be reminded of a sped up, catchier version of Beach House. What really helps sink that in are Alaina Moore’s vocals, which come across as both classic and overtly dramatic. Thanks to overdubs and harmonies, there are many points where Moore sounds like her own girl group and it’s all very lush and lovely. If there’s a complaint to be had regarding her vocals, it’s that the emotion doesn’t always project through her voice. Too often she sounds like a friend telling you an amazing story that happened to her instead of placing you inside the experience herself. In other words, she’s telling of all these places and adventures she’s been on while sailing, when the best and most satisfying way of hearing about them is to simply go see for yourself. Some singers have the emotional resonance to put you there, and others do not. With Moore at the vocal helm, she comes very close but doesn’t quite reach that sweet spot. You’re not taken to the beach, but are instead shown a photo of a beach and wish you could go. Perhaps what’s coming through then in Moore’s singing is that longing for the sea once again. Their two-year trip was cut dramatically short, and she’s stuck at a crossroads between the adventure that was and the adventure that could have been.

Should you have collected all the Tennis tracks from their two 7″ singles last year, you’ve already heard five of “Cape Dory”‘s ten songs. The great news is that those five songs are all great and very addictive and re-recorded with much higher fidelity than before. The initial plan was to record the songs on some beat-up tape to both dirty the songs up a bit and give them that much more of a vintage feel. Whether it was being given an actual recording budget or at the request of the label or some other reason altogether, everything on the album is crisper and clearer with just a tiny touch of fuzz – and is much better for it. You can now understand all the lyrics, the harmonies are just a little more prominent, the guitars ripple just a little bit more, and the hooks are just a little bit sharper. That said, those five previously released songs (“South Carolina”, “Marathon”, “Cape Dory”, “Bimini Bay” and “Baltimore”) remain the five best songs in Tennis’ catalogue so far. They don’t do any better with the five new cuts, but also don’t do any worse. “Take Me Somewhere” is a delightful way to start the record, all fun, excitement and anticipation for what’s looking to be a grand trip on a sailboat. The jangly guitar, surf rock drums and lightly shimmering 60s organ pick up the pace after the first verse, just after Moore sings, “make fast the lines, please don’t waste any time/oh i feel the wind blowing”. It’s almost as if that first 1:15 is a sailboat picking up anchor from the dock and creeping towards open sea when a huge gust of wind hits at just the right moment to let you know the trip has officially begun. Things hit a small standstill when “Long Boat Pass” shows up next, but it’s a storyline thing and not a pace thing. Our couple on this trip have spent some time at Longboat Pass in Florida, and as much fun as they’ve had there, she wants to keep going while he wants to stay longer. “Please let me through, we must return to sea”, she pleads near the very end of the song. Along the way there’s a toe-tapping melody that begins with some arpeggio guitar that eventually develops out into chords of the same thing, much like waves slowly getting bigger and bigger on the beach as the tide rolls in. So despite the not-exactly-cheery lyrics, the song itself is a delight, settling into such a groove that a legitimate chorus and hook aren’t even necessary to keep us interested in what’s going on. Moore’s vocals sound absolutely classic on the track too, more 1950s sugary sweet than most anything else on the album. Similar things could be said about how she handles “Pigeon”, a swaying ballad about devotion to your partner. “I Will be there, I promise to take good care of you”, Moore sings over a pulsating organ and sparsely plucked guitar. The urgency with whic she sings it and keeps repeating it, you can’t help but believe her. “Seafarer” is the first single from “Cape Dory”, and it’s an upbeat pop song with some seriously old school guitar chords and drum fills that only make it more compelling. The hook is what sells it though, along with those “oh ohs”. And as an album closer, “Waterbirds” serves its purpose perfectly, maintaining a relatively slow and quiet pace for the first minute and a half before surging to a loud and thrilling finish unlike anything else on the album. Moore spends the entire time reminiscing about all the wonderful little things she misses about their boat trip, including “sleeping deep in the brush” and “the insects chirping underneath the leaves”. She still dreams about it today, soaring in the chorus with, “Did we ever really leave?/This is all that we need”. Clearly the band has learned two things from their eight-month trek down the Atlantic coastline: 1) Home is where the heart is and 2) Memories last a lifetime.

Plenty of people will find “Cape Dory” to be a very “cutesy” and overly sweet record. That’s one way of looking at it, though it may be a bit superficial. The way these songs are constructed, built largely on classic-style melodies and vocals with just a hint of modern influence, says a lot more about the band than their back story does. Yes, how the album came into existence and what the lyrics are based on is important, but style holds court over substance in this case because Tennis might not have gotten our attention otherwise. FOr the most part, 2010 brought forth a whole lot of buzz bands that worked on the same sort of summer fun/beach, surf and sand-type levels, but in slightly different ways. We’re talking Best Coast, Magic Kids, Surfer Blood, Wavves and The Morning Benders all reaping the benefit of such a trend. Now Tennis are taking those same elements and making them over with a 50s girl group twist that satisfies as well if not better than the aforementioned artists. Every song on “Cape Dory” is nothing short of wonderful, and at only 30 minutes long the album is really easy to play over and over and over again. Spending eight months cruising around on a boat and visiting random places sounds like a lot of fun (unless you’re the seasick type), and in turn the record they made to help remember it brings to us a lot of those good times. I wonder if they have enough material for a follow-up.

Tennis – Seafarer
Tennis – Baltimore (7″ version)

Buy “Cape Dory” from Amazon

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