Album Review: Tennis - Swimmer
This is how my friend Gaby describes the group Tennis—a husband/wife duo originally from Denver, Colorado—to me; we’re midway through recording an episode of my podcast, all of my various recording equipment set up sloppily in my living room, and I ask her to tell me about Tennis, a group that I truthfully know very little, if anything, about.
The song she’s selected is, at the time, brand new—like, so new, it’s from their forthcoming album, which is still five days away from release, and “Need Your Love” is just so good that, the next day, without so much as batting an eyelash, based on the strength of that song alone, I order a copy of the album, Swimmer, the band’s fifth overall full-length.
Formed a decade ago, ‘Tennis,’ as a band name, is one of those things that seems difficult to Google; the couple met while in college, and prior to forming the band (as part of their compelling backstory) embarked on an eight-month sailing trip along the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard. Their experiences inspired their debut release, Cape Dory, issued in 2011; and the two would, again, set sail five years later, this time along the Pacific, to find inspiration for 2017’s Yours Conditionally.
With such an emphasis on boating, my knee jerk reaction is to call Tennis ‘yacht rock,’ though my friend Gaby, much younger than I am and better spoken and more enthusiastic and passionate than I can even fathom being at this point, assures me that they are ‘luxury pop.’
And even after sitting with just a few tracks on Swimmer—you don’t even have to listen to the whole thing to understand that she’s right.
The whole thing sounds kind of like a gimmick though, doesn’t it? A husband and wife duo (both of whom are slightly younger than I am) setting sail to serve as inspiration for their inherently throwback sounding band—it seems like more of a persona, or an act, than anything else. But Swimmer is so gorgeous, smooth, sultry, and fucking infectious that even if it is a slightly disingenuous in any way, you can forgive them, or at the very least, look beyond it.
I mean, it’s only February, but without a doubt, “Need Your Love” has got to be one of the best songs of the year.
The whole ‘thing’ with a group like Tennis is just how much their sound owes to what came before it; they wear their influences and their overall aesthetic, proudly, on their sleeves, and, at least in the case of Swimmer, rarely does it come off sounding derivative. If anything, it’s a heavy, heartfelt homage.
The group’s look—specifically of singer Alaina Moore, and specifically on the cover of their debut—screams “The 1980s”; however, the group’s sound has, much to my surprise, matured and evolved over the last decade. During my conversation about Tennis with Gaby, for the podcast, I specific that they are a group I’ve never listened to, but I have heard the name before; in doing even a limited amount of internet research later on, I recognize the cover art of both Cape Dory, and its follow up, Young & Old. And in doing even a limited amount of sampling online, it’s clear that Moore and her husband, Patrick Riley, have been working toward this specific sound for awhile now, and as soon as Swimmer begins, you can really tell that it is an effort that walks the line between laborious and effortless.
I hate to say that the early Tennis records sound like a group attempting to fill in a gap somewhere with what was popular with the Pitchfork crowd in 2011—e.g. Beach House and Best Coast; there is both a enthusiastic girl group swagger, and a swooning, dreamy lo-fi quality to a bulk of the material on both Cape Dory and Young & Old, and it’s a sound that the duo was able to mostly shed upon the release of their third album, Ritual in Repeat, from 2014.
Moore’s look on the cover of Cape Dory might have been 80s inspired, but the group’s sound, and aesthetic, as of now, owes so much more to the 1970s—flawlessly blending slinky R&B, the exuberance of disco, and a pop flair, to create something that is, unsurprisingly, fun to listen to—an element to music that is not always something I gravitate toward, which makes my almost immediate enjoyment of Swimmer a bit of a surprise.
Spread across only nine songs, and running slightly over a half hour, Swimmer wastes little time easing you into the completely immersive 70s aesthetic that Riley and Moore create within the album’s first song—“I’ll Haunt You,” a slow simmering, dramatic ballad that juxtaposes a Carpenter’s-esque swooning theatricality with a sinuous groove that kicks in during the song’s first refrain. It’s a big, bold, very deliberate way to open the record, before giving way to the startling and crisp drumming that opens “Need Your Love,” a song that, across its four minute running time, becomes a bit of a rollercoaster, as the band continues to speed up and slow down the song’s rhythm, which, during my initial listen, came as a total surprise.
Going for fast and rollicking during the song’s verses, musically it is plunked out with a thick low end and jaunty stabs at the piano, before the band pumps the brakes as they bring the song into its slithering, slow grooving refrain. It’s a neat trick, really—how often do you hear a song that makes such drastic changes to a song’s pacing based on where they are in the song’s structure? And even after you’ve listened to the song over and over again, the huge, pregnant breath that they take, pausing slightly at the end of the verse to inhale, exhaling on Moore’s vocals—“And I need your love and I need your touch like I need a bolt of lightning from the sky above,” she coos; and it’s even more impressive the second time around, with the inclusion of an additional bit of lyrics leading up to the chorus—“Babe you’ve got more poison than sugar,” she sings distantly, as you can hear the band working with precision to bring the speed of the song back down as it slides into the chorus again, riding out the slower tempo until the end.
I hesitate to say the first half of Swimmer is stronger than the second half, but the duo keep the songs mostly influenced by a crisp 70s inspired sound to the first half: “How to Forgive” finds Moore and Riley working very antiquated sounding synthesizers with a strong, shuffling percussive rhythm, and an emphasis on an infectious melody once the chorus arrives; and as the first half wraps up, “Runner” finds Tennis retreating slightly in their sound—finding the space between the dreamy, swaying, Beach House-esque guitar driven indie rock but still staying focused on an infectious, memorable chorus.
As the second half of Swimmer begins, Moore and Riley continue those juxtapositions of sounds and aesthetics with the strummy “Echoes,” that continues to pull the album into an indie rock leaning direction, though about its skittering rhythm is reminiscent of an uptempo waltz, and there is something distinctly….not so much ‘country’ inspired by the way Moore delivers her plaintive vocals, but there is something very ‘western’ about it. If it sounds, by this description, like a lot is going on within the confines of a three minute song, that is a proper assessment; it is absolutely dizzying, and incredibly captivating.
After hitting a small misstep with the island vibes of “Tender As a Tomb,” Swimmer regains composure with the emotional and surprisingly bombastic “Late Night,” before concluding with “Matrimony II.”
Swimmer is, by all accounts, not a dark album, but according to Moore, in press materials about the record prior to its release, states it was an album written during the couple’s darkest time—“Named for the feeling of suspension and upendedness that characterized this period, she writes, “it is the story of deep-rooted companionship strengthened by pain and loss. These songs carried us through our grief. It is us at our most vulnerable…” Moore's health scare from 2018 may contribute, at least partially, to the mindset the duo went into this record with (it also is the inspiration for the lyrics to "Echoes.") And for an album that seems more about an overall ‘vibe,’ or cultivating an aesthetic, and truly maintains an almost unrelenting amount of energy and fun, it is, at the end of the day, music made by two people—a married couple—and there has to be a little bit of 'them' tucked somewhere in there where pop, indie rock, disco, and R&B converge into something surprisingly listenable and enjoyable and isn’t a total train wreck.
The album’s most personal moment, fittingly, arrives at the end. Written by Moore, to and for Riley, “Matrimony II” is a reflection and a love letter set to music, as Moore attempts to ‘describe deep-rooted companionship, where the spark not new love has been replaced by a gravitational pull,’ as well as the love she’s come to know ‘after 10 years of marriage, when you can no longer remember your life before that person.’
By far the most tender song on Swimmer, it, like many of the other songs before it, grows and builds—not to a cacophonic peak, but to something much larger than how it began—which, I guess, is an allegory for the band itself, if you think about it, because even with all of the tender, slow burning balladry that “Matrimony II” is constructed with, the band works it into a near-frenzy that swirls around until its conclusion. It’s a sweet song, as one would expect from someone writing a love song and a reflection to their partner of a decade; it’s sweet, but not cloying or saccharine: “No one knows of love that’s slow, held like the longest breath; or the gentle pull of gravity that’s being-unto-death. I can’t go on living with a spark that’s only flickering. I only want that tenderness with every moment left to give.”
Right down to the album’s cover art, Moore and Riley are committed to the sound and look of Tennis, or at least, the sound and look of Tennis right now, tipping its hat to the groove of the 1970s while still keeping parts of themselves in the 80s, and into the reverb drenched indie rock of the 2000s. It is, as Moore said in her explanation of the record, not a dark one, but one made in dark times—and a band making anything this sunny, and enjoyable, in a time of grief, pain, and loss, is incredibly admirable, as is the album’s lush—dare I go so far as to say luxurious—production values. Self produced in their home studio in an effort to make this an intimate, vulnerable experience, recording wise, the meticulous detail to sound is simply remarkable—the production on the drums on “Need Your Love” alone, is an element of the record that I just can’t get over.
Even when it falters slightly near the middle, Swimmer regains its composure, and is, from beginning to end, an album that is remarkable in its accessibility and overall enjoyment, layered with complexities that have been well buried with its lyrics for those that want to plunge deeper than the initial, shimmering layer of pop music.