The cover of Tennis’ debut Cape Dory is extreme in its deception. Alaina Moore (one half of the band) strikes an awkward pose in a loud blue strapless pantsuit. Her right leg is cocked high upon the other while her auburn hair cascades down her back. Perhaps the most shocking detail though isn’t the retro, country-ish texture of her stare but the fact that she isn’t tanned. For someone who’s been at sea for along time that’s highly suspicious and distracting.
Tennis is Moore and her husband, Patrick Riley and their story of how they even started to create music is one thing but setting up for the outcome is, admittedly, lined with cynicism. Most indie bands can only initially offer theoretical experiences, thus the self-consciousness of lyrics and drumming is inevitable. Luckily, they eschewed this by circulating a free mp3 while on their sea voyage, only to return to put the whole journey down on record. A sea voyage (through the Eastern Seaboard) made possible after selling out everything they had except their passion for adventure. They spent seven months away then returned to start recording.
Great material for a novel but it’s the music that’s truly remarkable: beach pop that isn’t strained under any delusions as to how sun-soaked it should sound. There are the unending lo-fi riffs as well as breezy melodies that serve as hooks deep enough to come off as pretty but not saccharine. The album embodies the sound of 1960s girl groups like The Shirelles but in a very modern way. Moore’s vocals have been likened to Bethany Cosentino (Best Coast) by many critics but she oozes more genuine tenderness in my view and besides the latter is terribly overrated anyway.
Moore knows what to do with her songs naturally: Take Me Somewhere—appropriately the lead track—sets us gently on our way. ‘Sitting in the sand/ waiting for you/to return to land’, croons Moore but though it’s a pretty track, the urgency of it is fraught with feminine wiles that you know her lover won’t figure out. She berates him for leaving her behind, depriving her of the adventure too, but her real motive remains hidden. Moore’s voice works a mesmerizing spell whether it’s heartbroken (Long Boat Pass) or playful (the ecstatic title track). Like Victoria Legrand (Beach House), she knows how to juxtapose her voice to atmospherics and create harmony, instead of being drowned out. Marathon oozes into the same tropical riffs that Vampire Weekend has perfected but this is so much better than anything they’ve produced. Moore is backed by a lush production that makes me wonder if Riley isn’t secretly a member of Grizzly Bear as well.
If Cape Dory suffers from anything then it’s the inevitable comparisons it’ll draw to recent twee pop masterpieces like Summer Camp’s Young EP and Beach House’s Teen Dreams. It sounds like a hodgepodge of both those discs but it’s neither as strong nor demanding. The ten tracks clock in less than thirty minutes and it’s all a bit too homogeneous for one to gush over so early in the year. That means there is no standout but that’s usually the case with beach pop albums. But then again, Tennis isn’t working with ornate production or pop culture references here, just their involvement with the sea and each other. Its pleasure is in its mere being and that’s a hard sell to listeners ever clutching and waiting for the next big thing. Cape Dory is at every turn simple yet filled with self-gratifying moments that can gut-check even the hardest cynic once they don’t close their hearts to it.