Tennis had every reason to be a flavor of the minute when they started releasing their sunny singles in 2009. They were a husband and wife duo that made cutesy indie pop after supposedly spending several months together on a sailboat. It was nice for a summer daydream, but not the type of description that one attributes to longevity. By the time their debut Cape Dory came out in January of 2010, the punishing winter seemed to signify that even by then, we as a world were tired of this group. But Cape Dory was good. There not have been a wealth of life-changing songs, but it was a fun half-hour of beach-side escape for you and your loved one. Still, there was little hope for any staying power beyond a record that most people would describe merely as “nice.”
Tennis persisted though, and made a record with a rather unlikely producer – the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. Young & Old had some new tricks thrown in the mix, but underneath the mellotrons and pianos that cropped up here and there, it wasn’t discernibly different in style from Cape Dory’s general pleasantness. 2013 EP Small Sound faired similarly but had its moments.
On new album Ritual in Repeat, the band has assembled an indie dream team of producers, reinstating Carney but also employing Spoon’s Jim Eno and the Shins’ Richard Swift. A line-up like this immediately makes one think of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario, but the band works nimbly with the production team for a record that offers a nice mixture of their free and easy sound with affectations that work organically, instead of being plastered on.
Production is super key to why this record works. The duo of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore know they way around a song, but what makes a track like the waltzing “Bad Girls” work, as opposed to just sounding like “Pigeon,” is its approach. The keyboards and bass are wafty and staccato, much like one would find on a Beach House record minus the stoic-ness. “Timothy” bounces with a skipping beat and a fluttering harpsichord which pops up again on the breezy and lovely “This Isn’t My Song.” It may be with this record that Tennis might have finally stepped out of summer as these two songs as well as the stripped down folk number “Wounded Heart” have a more reserved quality that has more in common with a stroll through park foliage than staring at a glistening seaside.
Arguably the album’s most rewarding tracks though are the strutting disco twisters. The uptempo liquid funk of “Never Work for Free” recalls last year’s effortless indie dance favorite “Is This How You Feel?” by the Preatures and “I’m Callin’” and “Viv Without the N” bounce and sway in a swirl of Moore’s coos and Riley’s guitar reverb. These vibes wouldn’t be much without a distinct character to carry it, but Moore rises to the occasion – her vocals frequently rise out of her holding pattern of soft and sweet to let out more than a few passionate bellows and firm melodies.
Tennis may always be a second tier group, but they hold their own on Ritual in Repeat consistently. They might not ever be able to move away from the associations of the boat story, but what they do to make their sound pop as opposed to remaining content works incredibly well throughout.