If you’ve got a shtick, you’re already ahead of the pack; if you’ve got two, people will pay attention. Before a note was played, Tennis had a thing going for them. Husband and wife duo? Check. Interesting and verifiable back-story relating to the creation of your album? Check.
Not since Bon Iver back in 2008 has a band come readymade with such a strong narrative. As it’s impossible not to imagine the snow-capped Wisconsin wilderness in the creaky honesty of For Emma, Forever Ago, the shimmering guitar, cymbal splashes and bobbing organs of Tennis’ debut lights up a vivid recreation of the Atlantic seaboard in the mind’s eye. The fact that these guys are a genuine couple also lends an emotional authenticity to lyrics that could be cast aside as typical of the sound they’re doing – as much as Bon Iver’s achy ‘my girl left me’ penmanship would be without investing in the idea that there was actually an Emma. Kanye might not be calling them up for guest vocals on his next opus, but the pair has managed to woven an organic narrative into their music, something hard to do on the buzz-band conveyor belt.
Of course, that’s not to do the album a disservice and suggest this debut is all smoke and mirrors; that it’d be less solid and impressive an album without their nautical adventures. Cape Dory is a great album. Rarely have such a simple sounding pop band sounded so vital. Few songs hang around much beyond the three-minute-mark, the set-up strictly adheres to a streamlined guitar, organ and drums attack; the lyrics switch between literal storytelling of journeys undertaken, cooing mediations on relationships, and, sometimes, both (‘We didn’t realise that we had arrived at high-tide, high-tide / barely made it out alive’); the songs themselves stay as breezy and polite as I imagine the New England shoreline is. Like Beast Cost, the shoreline and the sea is a central motif of, but stylistically this is more ‘doo-wap’ than ‘oooohhh-oohhh’, more ‘let’s get a dog’ than ‘I wish my cat could talk’, more comfortable martial monogamy than achy-breaky breakups, more Elvgren than Warhol, more Eisenhower than Kennedy.
And they are *so* nice. Playing a basement cabaret venue in the heart of Soho – a jarringly unwholesome venue – the song introductions are so earnest. ‘This is a love song’, ‘This is a song about an injured bird we saved when it landed on our boat – it was *this* small’ and, perhaps most illustrative of how unhiply nice and apple pie they are, ’This is song about being fired from American Apparel for having bangs’ (…Baltimore, if you were wondering). Similarly, the tracks own transparency and directness never hinders their charms: Moore’s girl-group self-harmonising and Riley’s textured surf-guitar jangle being two examples of a simple idea that’s been done before – a lot – just being done better and more effectively and tightly here to conjure up the most sumptuously hazy summer daydreams.
If there’s one glaring fault in an album so brief, streamlined and effectively executed, it’s that it’s *too* polite. On a harsh day, Tennis is the sound of your favourite garage-pop band’s slightly more polite predecessors. It’s country club garage-pop, preppy and privileged without the self-awareness. Perhaps it’s to be expected from a band that is – I don’t know about the drummer – seemingly happily married. The wash of guitar occasionally teases at enough bite to break up the daydream comfort and warrant being called a riff; a handful of other tracks have that Shangri-Las drum shuffle that might inspire some polite dancing with a crowd that is cool with a bit of gentle pre-rock shimmying. But you wonder: there must have been some genuine discomfort and discord on these journeys, right?
These are cheap shots, sure. It’s hard to really criticise Cape Dory for not having more dissonance when it’s so clearly intended to emulate a sepia-toned and rose-tinted picture book of that brilliantly long holiday. Like half-remembered memories the songs can become indistinct at times, but a better collection of ten songs will be hard to find this year. Say hello to your summer soundtrack.
MP3: Tennis – Baltimore