the backstory of tennis and their debut album cape dory was portrayed as idyllic, something lifted from a script recently purchased by fox searchlight pictures: guy and girl marry, guy and girl sell all possessions to buy boat, guy and girl live on said boat, guy and girl return to denver to pen charming pop album, charming pop album is well-received, guy and girl become darlings of the blogosphere. that’s not to say that the attention cape dory garnered was unwarranted in any way. surf rock-inspired guitar melodies intertwined themselves with alaina moore’s vocals and keyboard progressions with ease, creating brief exercises in an amalgam of 1960s pop offshoots that resonated deeply with the music climate at the time. but with a project that was ostensibly predicated on one profound, shared life experience, it became difficult not to wonder if tennis would eventually burn out or prove to be a passing fad.
after young & old hit less than a year later in early 2012, it became apparent that tennis wasn’t a fluke; that profound, shared life experience turned out to be a catalyst for an impeccable songwriting partnership as opposed to a one-time stroke of good fortune. after a long bout of silence, tennis reappeared at the end of last year with small sound, an ep designed as a stop-gap before their much-anticipated, and delayed, third album arrived.
nine months later, we have ritual in repeat. the album finds tennis again working with the black keys’ patrick carney along with the shins’ richard swift and spoon’s jim eno, both of whom handled production on small sound. with this trio of producers in tow, moore and patrick riley have continued to distance themselves from the confines of their debut album, instead expanding their palate and honing in on new timbres to create their most mature – and important – effort to date.
a rather sunny disposition has been associated with tennis and their music, but ritual in repeat opens with “night vision,” a comparatively ominous track initially built around nothing more than a syncopated drum beat, moore’s descending vocal melody, and rumbling low-end interjections. riley’s warm guitar countermelodies eventually foil the darker tones established, but “night vision” feels less like a misdirection and more of a precursor to the bevy of moods present throughout the album. “bad girls” blurs the line between a self-examination and a cautionary tale of preconceived notions, with moore alternating between statements like “it’s true, i know, i’ll never find / i’ll never have any peace of mind ” and “even bad girls can do good things / even bad girls have holy dreams.” instead of foiling the lyrical content, riley’s guitar work enhances it this time around, slinking dark arpeggios through appropriate passages and rolling chords at confident, stratospheric moments.
the lead singles plucked from ritual in repeat, “never work for free” and “i’m callin’,” both perfectly highlight the familiarity of tennis’ sound. the former is uptempo, straight-ahead, and relies fundamentally on the vocal-guitar tandem of moore and riley, the very foundation of the band’s core, while the latter draws on the more recent funk and disco influences that permeated small sound. tennis also smartly recycled “timothy” from their ep, thus broadening the album’s overall scope with an earnest, beachy song about unrequited love. but yet, the shortest track on the album accomplishes the most in terms of the band’s maturation of sound. “wounded heart” clocks in just under two minutes and is completely stripped of any tennis tropes; riley swaps his electric guitar for an acoustic to strum a simple waltz for moore, who sings a tender, threadbare melody about the solace found in confronting heartbreak. with their signature aesthetic completely missing, tennis still proves that they can write meaningful, durable pop songs.
three albums in, tennis finally graduates to three-dimensional musicality and reaps all of the rewards in the process. ritual in repeat is nearly flawless from start to finish, although it’s not so much a movement-defining moment as it is a career-defining one. tennis has surpassed its buzz-band confines, leaving the door wide open for an endless possibility of musical endeavors.