February 14, 2012 - Fat Possum
The title of Tennis’ sophomore album, Young & Old, is a fitting description for the Denver trio, who's headed by married couple singer/keyboardist Alaina Moore and guitar/bassist Patrick Riley. The young pair met in college, signifying the first part of the album title, while their music harks back a half-century to early ’60s pop crooners, as filtered through keyboard-driven ’80s new wave. After their dreamy, lo-fi indie-pop debut, Cape Dory, attracted significant blog buzz, Tennis have returned barely a year later with another 10-track disc of three-minute pop songs. This time around, however, they've polished their sound in a real studio (and worked with a real producer, the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney).
The improved fidelity manifests in crisper, gleaming sonic fidelity that showcases increased richness and detail. While this enhances the beauty of the songs, it also makes them a little more lacquered down and indistinct from each other (which was admittedly a problem with their debut, as well). Whatever the band’s deficits, Moore’s vocals aren’t one of them. She transitions easily between bright, Brill Building-style pop (“Traveling”) and a soulful side (“My Better Self”) that recalls Sade.
The addition of drummer James Barone is a welcome one; his percussion really marshals these songs, pushing them forward like a tour guide leading rubbernecking tourists. Without him, there’s a sense these songs might linger forever. Indeed, this is the chief complaint with Young & Old. It’s not even that the lyrics are lacking; while sometimes a little rhyme-beholden (“across the saccharine plain/Cracked and devoid of rain/I think of life without pain”), they’re often thoughtful and searching. “We could all be good but we don’t live the way we should/Constantly told we’re imperfect,” Moore sings on “It All Feels The Same.” Sadly, that opening track could be the album’s epitaph.
While impeccably crafted, Young & Old feels distant and icy, even at its finest moments—as on the dreamy single, “Origins.” The track blends indie-pop jangle and new-wave synth burble much like Peter Bjorn And John’s breakout, “Young Folks”; it’s comely pop that’s a direct descendant of Spandau Ballet and ABC (if less dancefloor-minded). It’s infectious, but hardly life-altering.
In the end, Tennis offer a solid but unspectacular album by a band capable of great beauty but one who seem to struggle translating that into great songs. Those already infatuated with dolorous indie pop should be quite pleased, but there’s not enough here to entice those not already predisposed to the style.