Last year the duo Tennis emerged with a collection of cute, catchy indie pop and the kind of back story that’s catnip for publicists and rock writers – members Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley wrote the songs for the album after completing a seven-month sailing trip down the Eastern seaboard following their nuptials. Peppered with nautical references and indebted to both garage rock and girl group pop, Tennis could have walked straight out of a Wes Anderson script, all fetching naiveté and stylized romance. If the whole indie-rock-on-a-boat seemed too much to take, that’s because it was, at times. Tennis’s debut LP Cape Dory had a lot of great moments, but on the whole the album seemed to overdose on its own charms.
Sometime it takes hearing a band’s second album to realize what wasn’t quite right with the first. Such is the case with Young and Old, Tennis’s hot-on-the-heels follow-up to Cape Dory. The first thing you notice about Young and Old is the presence of a groove, a noticeable change from Cape Dory’s flimsy, nearly bass-less production. The new album was produced under the tutelage of the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and although Tennis has hardly gone the way of the Keys’ FM crunch, there’s a palpable effort here to provide a fuller foundation to Moore’s ethereal melodies and Riley’s guitar jangles and synth washes. First single “Origins” demonstrates the band’s rhythmic leap forward. Aboard piano pounds and a swampy beat, Moore works out her limited range with breathy oh-oh-whoas and emphatic, staccato vocal phrasings. “My Better Self” is another example of a good song made great by an infectious low end, as Moore’s delicate, girl-group vocals are paired with Mark Ronson-esque drums, a pleasing slice of vintage soul that will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Back to Black but which is imminently pleasing all the same. “High Road” meanwhile combines wheezy organ march out of early Elvis Costello and a lilting, tender melody. Tennis’s main ingredients are still nostalgia and sweetness, but the added umph improves their sound considerably.
The move from lo-fi to high-fi can be a dangerous one. Plenty of bands step into clarity and light and are found wanting, like an airbrushed model shown wrinkles and all by a high-definition camera. On Young and Old, Tennis thrives under the pressure of professional production, and although such things are hard to predict, I wouldn’t be surprised if the band finds itself soundtracking car commercials and entering the Billboard Top Ten. Tennis’s m.o. is hardly original, taking the road-tested sounds of 1960s garage and doo-wop and matching them to earnest female vocals, but the execution is nearly flawless. Young and Old may not be of the moment, it may not be sophisticated, it may not be ground-breaking, but it’s a record that’s hard to turn off once you put it on, and sometimes that’s all it takes.