Roughly a year ago, I played Tennis’s “Take Me Somewhere” for a musically inclined friend who perked up at the breezy, seafaring guitars, but soured considerably once vocalist Alaina Moore took to the mic. “It’s nice,” he said, “but her voice is too weak.” Indeed, the Denver indie-pop duo’s music is kind to the ears and wonderfully evocative of summer vistas, but marred by both its powerlessness and a sentimentality that remains coldly distant.
The band’s sophomore album, Young & Old, plays like an attempt to inject the sweet but limp aloofness of their debut, Cape Dory, with liberal doses of pained soul, but such angst isn’t in Tennis’s DNA; this is essentially what you play while yachting in Cape Code in your boat loafers and white shorts. Much like its predecessor, Young & Old is cheerful, hummable, and pleasant, but it’s also strangely inhuman and artificial, like the musical equivalent of a Ralph Lauren model.
Ironically, Moore’s voice is one of the few qualities that’s evolved for the better since Cape Dory, where its limitations were frequently masked by a thick layer of reverb. On Young & Old, the watery bathroom echo still persists, but her vocals are much more substantial and immediate, posessing a range sorely lacking on Tennis’s debut. Moore, who warbles with a pixie-cute gospel quality on the marching “Petition” and even musters some genuine indignation on “Origins,” manages to be one of the least-expected strengths of Young & Old.
Still, the album finds Tennis held hostage by their own limited strengths. The band is at its best when sticking to sunny, bubbly indie ditties like “Never to Part,” Young & Old‘s strongest track. The problem is, even at their best, Tennis’s music seems inconsequential and frankly, neutered. “Never to Part” is a pining, lo-fi pop gem that’s ultimately as forgettable as it is charming, which means that by being themselves, the band is inevitably caught in an impossible dichotomy. At its core, the appropriately titled Young & Old is very much stuck between two unenviable points: a rock and a hard place.