[17 January 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
The backstory to Tennis’ anticipated debut Cape Dory is as individual and personal as the band’s music itself: The album is more or less a travelogue of the seven months that married bandmates Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley spent on a small Cape Dory yacht together, with a tracklist announcing ports-of-call along the Atlantic seaboard from “Bimini Bay” to “South Carolina” to “Baltimore”. But more than Cape Dory‘s clever concept, what has really gotten Tennis noticed is its buoyant, head-bobbing pop, which can’t help but recall other nautically inclined bands in feel and theme. At its best, Tennis comes off like a lo-fi Beach Boys on a cloudy east coast day or a more classically indie Vampire Weekend, just as jaunty even without the world music pretentions.
That’s not to say, though, that you necessarily need to tap into Cape Dory‘s conceit to appreciate the record, because the partly sunny sentiments the duo conjures up shine through even stronger than the mental images of cruising the seven seas. In that regard, it’s with its indie-pop contemporaries that Tennis shares the most in common—just imagine the Pains of Being Pure at Heart with more of a golden oldies fetish or Real Estate with more sparkle than twang in its jingle-jangle sound. And if you thought that the lo-fi girl-group revival had already played itself out, you won’t be once you hear the way Moore’s ooo’s, ah’s, and la’s express desire even better than her evocative lyrics. So while knowing what went into the making of Cape Dory adds to the album’s sense of romance and adventure, there’s something about the easy interplay and intimate give-and-take between Moore and Riley that’s obviously on a more intuitive and intangible level.
Whether it’s setting the tone for the album’s seafaring wanderlust or more generally expressing the band’s irrepressible and genuine sense of yearning, leadoff track “Take Me Somewhere” works well however you approach it. On it, Moore’s girlish, cooing vocals float along to Riley’s shimmying, swaying guitars, only for everything to crescendo when she implores “Why don’t you take me somewhere?” in a manner that’s as lovesick as seasick. So life aboard the Cape Dory may be the inspiration for the daydreamy title track, but it could also be an exploration of pure but unquenchable passion, since what matters most is the sense of wonder and longing that Moore gets across as she croons “Take me out, baby / I want to go sail tonight.” But even when Moore fantasizes about splashing in the surf and listening to the crashing waves on her very own desert island, “Cape Dory” could as easily be set in a cramped suburban bedroom or at prom night in the school gym as it is on a faraway beach oasis.
Indeed, Cape Dory is completely captivating as both a literal description of the duo’s itinerary and a would-be hit parade of retro love songs. While “Long Boat Pass” alludes to a Florida inlet where the Tennis twosome was anchored, the song’s crisp nostalgic pop is about much more than that, as you can tell from the syrupy, unabashed way Moore sings “Darling, you know I love you / I love you” at the start of the track or when her voice soars with unadulterated exuberance to her naturally embellished whoa’s and oh’s. Likewise, “Marathon” sets the scene with enough fine description that it could’ve come out of a National Geographic (“Coconut Grove is a very small cove / Separated from the sea / By a shifting shoal”), but its bigger picture gets at the sensations the song stirs up, like the frisson of feeling that comes from venturing into the unknown and the exhilaration of getting through it, whether you’re talking about navigating the deep blue sea or a deepening relationship.
What stands out about Tennis’ craft is how the pair packs so much into standard three-minute pop songs, which brim over with observational detail, visceral feeling, and—most of all—stick-in-your-head hooks. For instance, it’s hard to tell what’s more vivid on the brisk, rambunctious “South Carolina”, the local flavor or the giddy mood the music conveys, especially when Moore dreams, “Make a family / In a quiet country / You and me in simplicity.” The formula works just as well when Tennis slows things down a notch, like on the melancholy “Bimini Bay”. On that woozy, waltzing number, a downbeat Moore could be describing the experience of being adrift at sea or something more existential when she wearily sings, “We’ve been gone for so very long / That we’ve forgotten where we are from,” to tug at your heartstrings in a different way.
Though there’s no way to completely dampen the effervescent spirit and good vibes of Camp Dory, the muddy production does bog down the album a bit when it obscures some of Moore’s vocals and the twinkling keyboards in the background, especially on faster songs like “South Carolina” and the washed-out romper “Baltimore”. On the other hand, the mid-tempo neo-doo-wop of “Pigeon” shows what Tennis is capable of with a clearer, well-defined sound, as its syncopated, almost orchestrated touches match and adorn the subtleties of Moore’s voice better than anything else on Cape Dory. It just goes to show that Tennis is a band that’s got more room to grow and more to explore, which is as much as you could expect or want from a group that’s already going places.