As cheerful and charming as Tennis's debut album was, it was hard to imagine the duo having much longevity. At heart, it was a vanity project: husband and wife Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley lovingly leafing through the memories of a seven month sailing trip they took together. Thankfully, the breezy, infectious appeal of the actual songs rescued debut album Cape Dory from being overshadowed by its narrative. Still, holiday snaps set to calypso beats wasn’t a formula they could work to forever, and so second LP Young & Old matured their sound while preserving their strengths.
Small Sound continues Tennis’s journey away from their gimmicky point of origin, but feels the strain of it a little more than their effortless second LP. While Young & Old developed lyrical themes and swelled out textures, it was still a natural extension of their debut, rather than a fundamental overhaul. By contrast, the songs on Small Sound are self-conscious attempts to try out completely different things – an approach resulting in an uneven mixture of new achievements and outright blunders.
To start with the good: Small Sound continues to explore the possibilities of their modest instrumentation. On Cape Dory, Tennis were undoubtedly a guitar band. Here, they’re forcing themselves to experiment with textures that don’t rely on their primary instrument; creating pieces based around space and cleanliness rather than fuzz. Often, these songs are built on little more than a rhythm section which didn’t even properly exist on their debut – layers of chords stripped completely away; guitar lines sparse, if they emerge at all; and tangy splashes of synth sitting much higher in the mix.
Young & Old’s lead single ‘Origins’ was the first example of Tennis getting serious about dynamics, with thin verses exploding into driving beats and sharp, staccato piano. Here, songs like ‘Mean Streets’ further this approach – Moore’s vocal line oozing across a slow, sexy crawl of a beat; a tea-tray of piano chords crashing to the floor at the end of each line. Moore may not have bags of emotional range, but these songs push the boundaries of her outer limits – moving from the sassiness of ‘Origins’, to sounding predatory and snarling.
Indicative of the uneven tone of the EP in general, ‘Mean Streets’ also houses Tennis’s biggest failure on Small Sound – a misguided attempt to completely divorce themselves from lyrical origins. Here, Moore meets the brick wall at the outer edge of her emotional range. Trying to deliver a couplet like “born and raised on the mean streets / that’s where she learned how to keep the beat” is wince inducing. Other songs make admirable attempts to look beyond the bond of their own marriage, but stand as overcooked attempts to sing about something brand new, just because.
Listening to Young & Old, it was clear that nobody had a clearer awareness of the corner Tennis appeared to have written themselves into than Tennis themselves. With these songs, they go a bridge too far, pandering to expectations of radical progress which their listeners probably don’t even have. But for all its wandering into uncomfortable territories, Small Sound preserves the core of Tennis’s charm, and it's savvy of the duo to (hopefully) consign their elements of feet-finding to a stop-gap EP.
6Russell Warfield's Score