[15 February 2012]
PopMatters Music Editor
The opening track on Tennis’ new album Young and Old is titled “It All Feels the Same”, but that’s not really an apt description of the married duo’s second go-around. While the syrupy melodies on Young and Old might appear as sweet as the ones that got Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley noticed on Tennis’ debut Cape Dory, more has changed than stayed the same as the twosome has tried to build on what was a charming and endearing first effort. That’s clear from the very beginning on “It All Feels the Same” once you get past the similarities on the surface, as you can tell from Tennis’ bolder sound and the ambivalent love song thematics that don’t rely on the high-seas getaway concept that made Cape Dory a one-of-a-kind listen. As mixed feelings that you never heard on the honeymoon-y Cape Dory begin to creep in here when Moore sings, “We could be good but we don’t live the way that we should,” it’s hard not to conclude that Tennis has done some growing up on Young and Old.
So it’s not like Young and Old is exactly an example of a difficult second album or a sophomore slump, but the offering does find Tennis going through the growing pains that come with the maturation process, artistically speaking at least. Produced by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, someone who definitely knows how to make more with less, Young and Old obviously punches up and rounds out Tennis’ fairly rudimentary neo-girl-group aesthetic. Tracks like “It All Feels the Same” and the rumbling, rambling “Origins” take Tennis’ twee sound and push it into power-pop territory, as Riley’s chiming guitars and Moore’s buzzing keyboards have more oomph and texture than before. But what really extends Tennis out of its warm-and-fuzzy comfort zone are R&B-pop numbers “My Better Self” and “Petition”, which are pleasant surprises that get down instead of playing it cute and safe. In particular, Moore’s almost throaty vocals embellish the effect on “My Better Self”, adding unexpected richness and emotion to her oldies-inflected cadence.
Oddly, though, the bigger sonic palette ends up revealing some of the limitations of the band’s approach, as the compositions show that there’s a ceiling to what Tennis’ duo format is capable of. Even as Tennis’ melodic chops are pushed to the fore through the beefed-up production, the album lacks a sense of dynamism to keep it lively and compelling all the way through, though the runtime is just a little over half-an-hour. A big reason why Young and Old has trouble gaining momentum, much less keeping it, is its lack of variety, with every single one of the record’s ten tracks moving at more or less the same brisk pace, following after a classic three-minute pop-song blueprint too literally and dogmatically. By the time you get to the second half of the album, Young and Old gets bogged down, whether by consistency or redundancy, with songs like the jaunty “Robin” and the doo-woppy “Dreaming” pretty much indistinguishable from the offerings that came before them. In this case, Tennis is right that it all does feel the same.
Thematically, Tennis does take steps to move past Cape Dory’s travelogue conceit, though the group could hardly make another concept album without risking becoming a kitschy, gimmicky act. Still, the lovelorn lyrics on much of Young and Old can feel a little half-baked, even trite, sometimes the product of convention than conviction. While her eagle-eyed details made Cape Dory’s sentimental journey more romantic than maudlin, Moore’s vocals this time around feel somewhat abstract and generic. On “Dreaming”, Moore comes off less than convincing with her pacing off as she stumbles through lines like, “You revealed yourself in a dream / Then you told me how to believe / Dreaming / I’m dreaming.” No matter how precious Cape Dory might’ve seemed on paper, there was a natural, impromptu quality to it that made it work, a feeling that Young and Old can’t fully recapture with awkward couplets such as those on “Take Me to Heaven”: “As a child I was told / We all possess a soul / And wonder when I’m old / I wished I’d been more bold.” Maybe it’s an attempt for Tennis to dig for newfound emotional depth, but that effort can be somewhat discordant, considering the band’s giddy sound and fairy-tale backstory.
Ultimately, Young and Old does feel a bit like the work of a band that’s doing something new because it’s supposed to be doing something new. If Young and Old seems more forced and formulaic than the carefree indie-pop of Cape Dory, it’s because it can’t be easy for Tennis to try to forge a new identity, figuring out what it wants to be all over again after having done that once—and better—already.