Music Reviews

Tennis Swimmer

(Mutually Detrimental) Rating - 7/10

As with Tennis' last album, their latest features a cover photograph of bandmates and spouses Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley transported, seemingly, from the era of yacht rock. They've got retro haircuts, polyester clothes, and are exactly one sailor's hat away from a Captain and Tennille photo shoot. Not surprisingly, the album's sound is evocative of dreamy, nautical-pop of a simpler time: bubblegum love tunes, ballads that drift romantically onto the dance floor, and there you have it, you're listening to Tennis.

This stylistic package fits with Tennis' overall narrative. The band was conceived during a year-long Atlantic excursion in a sailboat Moore and Riley bought after undergrad school. Inspired by the salty air and a reawakening of their musical backgrounds, the couple pledged their love to each other, abandoned graduate studies, and began releasing albums to increasingly critical acclaim. Their style has since solidified, but never strayed far from the retro homage to 60's girl bands that the two initially took inspiration from.

Their latest album, Swimmer, confirms that it's business as usual for the outfit, though perhaps Tennis has become a touch more reflective and mature. Moore pines about aging on opener I'll Haunt You, a piano-laced ballad reminiscent of another vintage-fetishist, Natalie Laura Mering (Weyes Blood). Like Weyes Blood, Alaina Moore's singing is generally untouched by effects, leaning instead into the au naturale flavor of the likes of Carole King. Unlike King and Mering, however, Tennis' songs don't unravel complex layers of emotion and image, preferring to remain safely dance-able and keeping to the paradoxical yet predictable aspects of long-term relationships.

Swimmer's themes of partnership are accompanied by generally upbeat, vintage-synthy, and easy-listening tunes that never stray far from a verse-chorus format. The palate ranges from the aforementioned piano ballads (another bookends the album) to loose-stringed guitar and vintage keyboards reminiscent of Ariel Pink but less weird, to a song (Tender as a Tomb) which in every aspect—from its ironic title to its Les Baxter rhythms to its plucked electric guitar to its banal and annoyingly catchy chorus—is basically a Vampire Weekend song.

The question is, what does a band gain by sticking to a formula? Tennis is certainly not the first band to keep doing what they do best. Nothing wrong with that. But because Tennis' sound is, to use this word in its mildest possible form, an appropriation of old styles, the band has never needed to set a course into uncharted waters. And Swimmer neither evolves from nor builds on their previous outings. Because of that, the impression is that of a lackadaisical effort, despite capable musicianship and keenly crafted songs. Even the lyrics stick with relatively generic pap about love, with the exception of titular Swimmer, which bravely evokes some melancholy. Swimmer patiently builds layers of guitar and voice, developing a strong emotional hold on the listener, compounded in lyrics which, though abstract, are haunting:

I'd take up swimming for the patriarch now dispersed so casually like sediment into the sea.
The swollen moon all flushed with red, one eclipse away from the bay of the dead.
It ain't right I'm telling you, it's more than coincidence.

Unfortunately, Swimmer and a few other songs hint at what could have been, only to have the other half of the album play it safe. If only more of Tennis' songs took risks on unexpected palettes of emotion and drew from more complex poetic wells, then they might provide us with something special. Instead, they've created another enjoyable, if a bit rote and predictable album, like a relationship drifting into comfortable and boring domestic habits.

Bottom line: if you want to chill with some friends at the marina while you sip white wine sangria, then this is perfect music for you. Or let Swimmer play in the background while you drive to work and pretend the world is a simpler place, one where your darkest fear is a stable relationship. Or, as I personally found, play this album while you get stoned and clean out your fridge. It's good for that too.