A new band doesn’t exactly help its critics when it comes with an engaging origin story. Take Bon Iver (heartbroken, mononucleosis sufferer with tear-soaked beard writes songs in remote Wisconsin cabin) and M.I.A. (gorgeous, British-born, Sri Lankan-raised agitprop singer has dad with ties to guerilla movement), whose ready-made anecdotes have yielded no small amount of lazy music writing.
But in the case of Tennis, the husband-and-wife duo of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore , the creation yarn is inextricable from any discussion of the band’s debut full-length, Cape Dory. For one thing, the couple wrote the album’s songs following a seven-month sailing trip up the Atlantic coastline. They not only named the record after the brand of their sailboat, but each song details some aspect of their maritime adventure. Jimmy Buffett looks like a landlubber by comparison.
Sonically, Tennis’ music is a very reverential take on the ’60s girl-group sound; in a New York Times interview, Moore said she was inspired by hearing The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” in a bar on the Florida Keys. That aesthetic has driven enough bands in recent years to be considered a proper revival, but Tennis distinguishes itself from other Wall of Sound re-enactors by making very clean, unadorned, simple pop songs. Tennis is more earthbound than Beach House, less fuzzy than Dum Dum Girls, and less whiny than Best Coast.
The band doesn’t deal in relationship problems or self-doubt. Instead, every song that Moore sings—and she sings beautifully—is about her nautical journey and her love for Riley, her first mate. On “Cape Dory,” Moore trills, “We can play in the sun holding hands/And nap through the day on sun-bathed sands/We can live on an island of old conch shells.” Don’t worry: I reacted to these sunny, beautiful, unflappably positive songs like anyone should, by wanting to throw the pair of Pollyannas overboard. There’s a reason that the best album ever made by a married couple, Richard and Linda Thompson’ s Shoot Out the Lights, is about the bitter end of the relationship.
Despite the album’s treacly feel, there are a handful of delightful songs. “Marathon” is a catchy, bouncy reflection on the wonder of seeing Coconut Grove under a moonless sky. Riley’s sprightly strum on “South Carolina” is the perfect buoyant accompaniment to Moore’s airy voice.
Still, the relentless nautical theme, saccharine lyrics, and minimal arrangements ultimately make Cape Dory a tedious listen. Not seven-months-on-a-sailboat tedious, but tedious nonetheless.