Tennis - Cape Dory
Fat Possum Records
There are three major influences on the current indie rock scene.
1.) Late 1960's Psychedelia: Using the folk/blues mind bending sound combination with lo-fi recording and hazy tape sounding recordings, bands and artists like Woods, Ty Segall, Black Mountain, and many more successfully blend their contemporary take on the genre. Woodsist Records does a great Buddah Records impression successfully finding the more interesting bands who are exploring this hybrid of decades.
2.) 1980's: Mainstream electro pop bands take a literal approach to the 80's influence of the synth but there are bands like Twin Shadow, Twin Sister, and Ariel Pink who turn the 80's sound into a calming and sometimes hypnotic sound.
3.) Late 50's/Early 60's Easy Listening: I often refer to this genre as late 50's prom music where the lead singer hip shakes slowly side to side as they croon over simple melodies. My favorite is Bobby Vinton whose album "Blue On Blue" is the pinnacle of this genre. Current bands have been flirting with this genre for a while, but Cults busted down the doors in 2010 with their songs pointed directly at Lesley Gore for approval. Cults brought a fresh perspective on the genre with chimes and moments that felt much more now than then. The Morning Benders did such a great job masking their influence that few immediately found the comparison. They took easy listening to a new level with wonderful moments of dynamic explosion that took us out of the past and into the present and then back to the past. This the genre that Tennis borrows from. Unlike some, I don't think of influence as a negative, rather a logical point where a band/artist finds their sound. The main problem is that Tennis doesn't play enough with their influences to separate their album "Cape Dory" with any of the forgotten easy listening records of the early 60's that you can find in the used 99 cent bin at your local record store.
The great thing about the 50's/60's easy listening style is that you don't have to be all that talented to write immediately likable songs. The standard melodies trigger very basic aesthetics that makes the listener happy. They hear the beach, driving around on a sunny day with friends, diners, and as I said before high school dances of the past that have been immortalized visually through television and film. All a band needs to pull off this sound is a great innocent voice and a very simple melodic equation. What Tennis doesn't understand and execute on this record is why it ultimately fails.
A little secret about the greats of this genre: while the songs sound happy there is something very dark or passionate lurking behind the surface level glaze. Bobby Vinton's songs have been used in David Lynch films to highlight this very point of evil hiding behind beauty. Lesley Gore had upbeat melodies but was one of the most cynical lyricists on the subject of love. Cults lead singer Madeline Follin will gently groove to the swinging melody and then explode with such a passion that the sweetness of the song turns to pouring out the heart to the listener. Tennis just moves forward at the same pace track to track and then the album is over. They understand their influence on the surface, but lack the soul that made the greats of the genre standout from the rest. The best example is Edward Hopper in the 1940's. Take a look at any of his realism paintings that focus on what seems to capture an ordinary moment. No matter what your interpretation of the backstory and the characters/places of his paintings, you have two layers: the immediate (the simple identification of fact) and an eerie feeling that something very important is hidden in the backstory. It's the absence of this second layer on "Cape Dory" that ultimately renders it an uninteresting listen.
With this criticism aside, I can understand why people enjoy the songs of Tennis. Lead singer Alaina Moore has a very nice voice and her understated approach really works to maintain a calming effect start to finish. There are a few precious tracks that work much better as individual songs rather than pieces of a full album. If I listened to "Marathon" on its own, my interest would be peaked and I would look forward to how they take that sound and progress it on a full length. The problem is this song gets watered down due to the previous three tracks maintaining the same level of passion and emotion. Almost every song has the same approach which fits because my least favorite easy listening records from the early 60's had this very same problem.
"Cape Dory" is not a bad album or something you should avoid, it's just not that interesting. The general listener will find enjoyment from this record and that's always a positive. I found myself tapping my toe at times and enjoying moments, but I doubt after this review I'll be spending any more time with "Cape Dory". Tennis has mastered the reproduction of a genre, but they need to find that second layer to make these songs transcend a gentle voice and melody formula. The album clocks in a little over thirty minutes but is exhausting in it's repetition of similar sounds and the lack of depth. Anyone who finds this record exhilarating, fresh, or thoughtful simply doesn't listen to enough music. It's a record you put on while you're multitasking, not an album that forces you to sit in front of the stereo and give the entirety of your emotions to the sound.