Album: Yours Conditionally
In Brief: Tennis has a laid-back, breezy, sunny sort of indie pop style that feels like a less gloomy, more innocent Beach House. It’s an easy sound to fall in love with, though the lack of variance in tone and tempo can start to get repetitive toward the album’s end.
Tennis, a band comprised of a married duo from Denver, Colorado, has been making laid-back, nostalgic pop music since 2010, though I hadn’t heard of them until they dropped their fourth album, Yours Conditionally, this spring. Due to their innocent vibe, their love of music from decades past and their DIY approach, you could tag some of their music as lo-fi, surf-pop, twee-pop, etc., or just throw up your hands and put it all under the overarching umbrella of “indie rock”. On this album in particular, it’s easy to hear the light touch of Alaina Moore‘s keyboards and Patrick Riley‘s electric guitar, along with some looped drums here and there, and be reminded of Beach House, a stalwart in the “dream pop” genre. But Alaina’s vocals and the band’s faster tempos (and by “faster”, I mostly mean “mid”) immediately set Tennis apart from the smokier, gloomier vibe that Beach House tends to go for. Imagine the most vulnerably lovey-dovey songs Gwen Stefani ever performed, with a little bit of Nina Gordon post-Veruca Salt thrown in, and you’ll start to get the idea. In truth, all of these artists probably have common antecedents that were big before I was born in the late 70s (and before the members of Tennis were born in the mid-80s, for that matter). From what I’ve heard of the band in interviews, they seem to recognize the fine line between paying homage to their influences and ripping them off. That makes Tennis, on this album at least, an easy band to fall in love with, even though I’m sure I’ve probably heard several variants of their overall aesthetic before, and embraced them just as eagerly as a sunny-day soundtrack.
What’s interesting about Yours Conditionally is that it doesn’t just rest on the laurels of the obvious, earth-toned, yacht-rock aesthetic it’s going for. (I mean the “yacht-rock” thing almost literally, as the group’s first album and this one were both inspired by sailing expeditions that the duo set off on together.) It’s true that a few of these songs are pure, joyful escapism, but in others, the cheery vibe serves as insidious mask for some lightly sarcastic commentary on gender roles and the unfair expectations women face when compared to men. It’s almost as if Alaina wants to lull us into a false sense of security before reminding us that just putting on a show and being pretty is not all that she exists to accomplish. It’s an interesting effect when these songs are juxtaposed with earnest, wholehearted songs of love and loss that make her and her husband’s devotion to one another crystal clear.
As easy as it was for me to be drawn into the warm, inviting mood of this album, I do have to admit that after a while, the minor variances in tempo and the same basic instrumental setup heard on most of these tracks can make Yours Conditionally an exercise in diminishing returns. I’ve remarked on albums that seemed front-loaded before, but this one may well have its tracks sequenced in almost the exact order of my preference, starting off with three or four heavy hitters and then winding down a bit with some pretty good tracks in its middle section, before arriving at the final third of the album where my reaction is mostly “meh”. It’s ten songs and 36 minutes, so they don’t stick around long enough for their keyboard-heavy pop style to grow truly monotonous (unlike, say, the new Michelle Branch album), but I have to be honest and say those later songs just don’t make as much of an impression on me. Some bands experiment wildly and come up with incredibly uneven albums as a result; Tennis on the other hand seems to know what works and mostly stick to it. That makes Yours Conditionally an excellent pick-me-up on the days when I need to feel better about myself or I need an antidote to the stereotypical, bull-headed, alpha-male tendencies that sadly seem to be making a comeback in our society these days. It’s not world-changing art, but it affirms a better world that I’d like to believe we can still live in.
1. In the Morning I’ll Be Better
The swaying rhythm, the vintage keyboard sounds, and the high-pitched, gloriously multi-tracked vocal intro heard in the opening bars of this song are pure ear candy. Their effect is incredibly calming and engaging at the same time. As comforting and reassuring as this opening track wants to be, you can still hear the struggle and the imperfection beneath it, in the way that the drum beat nervously shifts back and forth, and the electric guitar sort of messily smears its brief solo and then abruptly cuts off leading into the second verse. This song was borne out of wanting to comfort someone who is tired and suffering and has just had it – they’ve given all they can give. And there’s a vulnerability to it, an admission that you don’t quite know how to give them comfort, because ending their pain isn’t your gift to give in the first place. Yet in that promise to stick by them and love them fiercely, there’s solace nonetheless. I love how the bridge of this song, which never bothers to return to its chorus and doesn’t need to anyway, caps it off with a hint of optimism that just maybe sleeping on it will bring some clarity, and the morning light will make their problems seem just a tad bit more surmountable. I first listened to this song (and the album as a whole) on a day when I’d experienced a deep personal loss that I wasn’t entirely sure how to articulate. And I think it genuinely helped me through the grieving process. It’ll always have a special place in my heart for that reason.
2. My Emotions Are Blinding
This mid-tempo toe-tapper gets going with a slightly crunchy beat and a solid bass line, and a mellow finger-picked melody from the electric guitar. It’s not the most in-your-face pop hook out there, but it’s just the right tone and tempo for a song that’s both confessional and sarcastic at the same time. On first glance, Alaina seems to be lamenting her emotions getting the best of her, as if she’s constantly at risk of getting “hysterical” and needing some sort of an outside force to straighten her out. She sings this with what sounds like carefree sweetness and sincerity (this is where she first reminded me of the more innocent side of Nina Gordon), but look a little deeper at the words, and how they specifically bring her female gender to the forefront a few times, and you’ll start to realize that lines like “Women are much closer to nature” or “I’m just a vehicle for the material” were intended a bit derisively. This is more a song about how women like her get unfairly summed up, than it’s a song about how she actually thinks and feels. Sure, we all get blinded by our emotions from time to time. But men are expected to stuff every emotional responsive but anger and aggression down most of the time, while women are expected to be helpless victims of the emotions we all experience. (Seriously, look up the etymology of the word “hysteria” sometimes. It literally has the same root as the word for “womb”, implying that it’s an inherently feminine condition.) Alaina’s having none of it, which is why she wrote a lightly bouncy pop song to sort of make fun of it, as if to say that she’s fully capable of recognizing her own emotional blind spots and rescuing herself long before she reaches the brink of insanity, thank you very much.
3. Fields of Blue
Now, if what you’re looking for is a sweet, innocent song about being helplessly in love, this one’ll float your boat. I mean that literally, because it’s about the two of them going off on a sailing trip with nothing but the vast ocean and their wedded bliss to keep them warm. They don’t even try to hide the lovey-dovey-ness here, and this is one of the places where the earnest twists and turns in her vocal melody remind me the most of Gwen Stefani. The music, meanwhile, rests on some simple acoustic chords, a very beach-y kind of a vibe, with a snare-heavy drum beat that continually emphasizes beats 3 and 4, giving the song the illusion of being more up-tempo than it actually is. It’s weird how such a simple change in a formula that’s pretty basic overall makes the song that much more memorable. Some might find that insistent drum pattern a bit repetitive by the end of the song, but I think that’s what gives it a ton of charm. It helps that a few different types of guitars, acoustic for rhythm and electric for lead, if I’m not mistaken, are changing up their delivery ever so slightly throughout these three and a half minutes. it’s pure bliss to my ears.
4. Ladies Don’t Play Guitar
Here’s where Alaina really lays it on thick with the commentary on gender bias. It’s almost self-referential, since (at least in live performance) she genuinely doesn’t appear to be playing guitar on this song, and it’s mostly shaped by her keyboards and a sexy bassline. She wrote it as a commentary on how the guitar is often seen as a man’s instrument – obviously there are plenty of examples of women in rock music who play it, but chances are if there’s a male-female duo fronting a band and it has keyboards or piano in the lineup, the woman will be playing it. Apparently gender bias even influences the instruments parents push their children to learn how to play when they’re little. When Patrick chimes in between verses, and later in the song, with some input from his electric guitar, it’s in a bit of a supporting role, as if he’s the straight man standing next to the observational comedian, simply commenting, “Yeah? What’s up with that?” Even though he’s not providing vocals, I love how he seems to lend moral support by not taking over despite playing what most rock aficionados would consider the “lead” instrument. The way we view women versus men in the music industry gets confronted in the third verse, where she drops the coy “ladies just rely on men” act she’s been building up in the first few verses, and hits us with these questions: “Tell me what can I give/If all my work is oblique and abstracted/Try to build a legacy/That will not complicate the future of your own progeny.” Between this and “My Emotions Are Blinding”, it’s pretty clear that she’s been dealing with unfair assumptions that people treat her husband like he’s “in charge” of the band instead of it being a team effort, or sidelining her with annoying questions about when she’s gonna settle down and have babies, as if that were the be-all end-all of a woman’s existence. I’ve certainly heard more vicious commentary on this sort of thing from other artists, but there’s something about Tennis’s ability to deliver sharp commentary in such a soothing package that I think will really sneak up on people in a good way.
The use of an obvious drum loop and the gentle tooting of what sounds like an organ really remind me of Beach House here. The upbeat and cheery tone of it certainly reminds me that Tennis mines different emotional territory than Beach House does, which is not a knock on either band – I’m just pointing out what the two have in common here. There’s no need to read deeply into these lyrics, as they’re a pretty simple account of Patrick and Alaina’s wedding day, filled with adorable little homespun details such as “I’ll wear the dress that my sister made/And the blunt haircut your dull scissors gave me.” The multi-tracked chorus, where Alaina is once again at her Gwen Stefani-est, will get the words “Sweet summer morning early in July” lodged pretty deep in your brain. You won’t get them out easily, but then, unless you hate happy songs or something, you probably won’t be inclined to try.
6. Baby Don’t Believe
This is the kind of song I’d be tempted to tune out if it came from a lot of other bands. Once the tempo slows to the sort of loose, lackadasical sort of rhythm they’ve got going on here, my mind tends to wander unless there’s some variance to it as the song builds slowly, or else there’s enough in the lyrics or the other instruments to help get me over the blandness of how it starts off. I actually found myself really getting into the chill vibe of this song once I got used to it. It’s not one of the more memorable moments on the album, but I like how the keyboards and the clean guitar tone give it a sort of “loungy” feel. While the lyrics to this one are pretty straightforward, it’s a little harder to discern their intent, as Alaina may well be singing it from someone else’s point of view: “Standing alone, standing alone, lonely wingman/I will wait in the background/Working alone, working to hold in this feeling/So give me your hand, make me a man if you mean it.” I’m reminded that there are two creative minds helming the band, and thus two likely viewpoints for these lyrics to be coming from. I honestly don’t know how they divide up the lyrics and music in terms of who composes what. But there could also be some subtle commentary on gender roles in play here if Alaina did write these words, which would be consistent with what she’s expressed in a few earlier songs.
7. Please Don’t Ruin This For Me
This is the first track on the album where the band takes a noticeable break from keyboards. The acoustic guitar strumming happily in 6/8 time while the electric adds a melody on top of it is a nice change of pace, and one could almost imagine Alaina skipping happily through a field of flowers, if one only focused on her vocal delivery, and the tambourine and handclaps that make up the bulk of the percussion. The lyrics, however, paint a much darker picture: “Build an altar, stoke the flame/Speak half truths that sound arcane/All my dreams so deeply hidden/Rise up to my throat unbidden/All the comforts I forsake/Like afterlives and divine fate.” There is perhaps a loss of faith being described here, and knowing that there’s a bit of a strict religious upbringing in Alaina’s backstory helps to shed some light on that. (It would also explain the frustration with being pigeonholed into specific expectations of her identity as a woman in other songs.) For a person to decide to throw off the shackles of a rigid, rule-based existence and embrace the unknown ahead of them can be both exhilarating and terrifying, and the conflicting music and lyrics seem to capture both of those feelings quite well.
8. 10 Minutes 10 Years
The problem with all of my favorite stuff being stacked up in the first two thirds of this record is that the last third is gonna be harder for me to write about. I simply don’t remember as much about these last three songs that really motivates me to write about them, but track by track is what I do, so I’ll try anyway. This song gave an unfortunate first impression due to its title that I haven’t quite shaken off, due to what seems to be a cold uncertainty that it expresses about how long a relationship could last. I don’t think that makes it a bad song, but its observation that the only certainty a couple has is in the string of moments they’ve experienced together so far, that could be cut short for reasons unknown at any second, doesn’t really fascinate me all that much. The drums seem to be on autopilot here, and the guitars are a bit too clean and sterile, and while Alaina fills the space with lovely lead and backing vocals, using the higher end of her register a lot, I really struggle to stay engaged here.
9. Modern Woman
I want to say that this song is an emotional standout on the album. It certainly feels like it was intended as such. The instrumentation is stripped back to an acoustic guitar at the beginning, to put more weight on Alaina’s words, and they seem like a very softspoken plea for understanding from a friend who has drifted away. It’s a good beginning, but the lyrics are rather vague about the situation that drove these two women apart. I get the impression that they’re very different people, and perhaps their take on what it means to be a woman is different. Alaina isn’t trying to argue with her, but rather to affirm that they both do things their own way and that’s fine. She makes it pretty clear that she’s not apologizing for any perceived mistakes made, but regrets allowing herself to be misconstrued: “All I want is comfort in a touch or a look/All I want is to forget the way you mistook/No, I’m not asking for forgiveness/I’m just getting tired of living with this.” While I don’t necessarily need a bunch of dirty laundry aired, I feel like I’m just beginning to get invested in this story when the song starts to fall back on sheer repetition in place of any kind of a climax or resolution. The repeating, overlapping vocal parts are lovely – as they always are – but the rather plain melody and the hazy, softspoken instrumental backdrop don’t do the song any favors. I feel like I’ve gotten the gist of it a good minute or so before it ends.
10. Island Music
The final track seems to put a very soft ellipsis on the album – it’s based around a gentle but lovely guitar melody that Patrick wrote, the soft thump of a programmed drum beat, and an airy vocal loop of “do-do-do”s from Alaina. It may well be the twee-est thing on the album, but it also feels rather murky and half-baked, which frustrates me a bit. The lyrics seem to describe a deep sadness numbed by a wall of emotional numbness, as she laments “Why can’t I cry?” in more of a quiet, brooding tone. I’ve compared other songs of theirs to Beach House, but this may be where the vocals and overall mood come closest to something I could imagine Victoria Legrand singing about. It’s a bit unsettling to hear her sing “Baby, I’m unmoved by you” after some of the grand, love-affirming statements in the front half of the record. I suppose that makes my rather “meh” response to this song – and the last part of this album as a whole – rather interesting in light of the fact that that I’m often drawn to the moodier side of nostalgic pop music than I am to the bright, cheery, obvious hits. What can I say? On this record at least, Tennis did a more convincing job with the happier and more assertive stuff than they did with the more withdrawn, navel-gazing stuff. Seven out of ten ain’t bad at all.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
In the Morning I’ll Be Better $2
My Emotions Are Blinding $1.75
Fields of Blue $1.75
Ladies Don’t Play Guitar $1.50
Baby Don’t Believe $1
Please Don’t Ruin This For Me $1.25
10 Minutes 10 Years $.25
Modern Woman $.50
Island Music $.25
Alaina Moore: Vocals, keyboards, guitar
Patrick Riley: Guitar, bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: