There seems to be a general feeling that pop music should stay a bit simple or escapist and not move through a multitude of moods and notions in the span of one song. That’s could be why, six years in and four albums deep, there’s still some hesitation toward categorizing Tennis as a “pop group.” The duo’s latest, Yours Conditionally should settle that issue at last. It’s a collection that explores the uncertainty of one’s identity and their understanding of past experiences and current trajectory. And it’s as poppy as anything.
For this new album, singer/guitarist Alaina Moore and keyboardist/bassist Patrick Riley returned to their roots as a means of jumpstarting new inspiration. Tennis famously wrote/recorded their first album after an adventurous sailboat journey along the east coast. Five years later, the married couple took another 10-day ocean voyage from San Diego down to the Sea of Cortez, where they docked and set up a makeshift recording space.
Musically, Yours Conditionally is much softer, slowing its pulse to something closer to the swoon and sway early ‘70s soul, with shuffling tempos and sentimental organ purrs orbited by an electric guitar’s fiery simmer. The tone is certainly slow dances at twilight, but given a shimmer by the understated elegance of Moore’s voice, something that has always sound fragile but defiant at the same time.
“My Emotions Are Blinding” tips at the ambivalences of intimacy, mindset and motivations that the duo is working through on this new album. “It’s metaphorical for the categorical / I get hysterical / it’s empirical…” “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar” may sound initially sound like a jab at rock’s patriarchy, it blossoms into quite a deep dive into Moore’s emotions, struggling to situate her full self within the context of a musician’s career, while also being someone who can still effectively give the gift of love as a wife and lover. This song’s a quiet storm, searing with album’s most raw and also resplendent moment of guitar phrases, growling around Moore’s tender voice to match her yearning for clarity.
Whereas 2014’s Ritual In Repeat leapt and bounded with markedly more aerobic tempos, this new record affects the steady glide of a sailboat, or the steady respiration of an ocean tiding on and off the shore. “Fields of Blue” has its most fitful percussive arrangement; the vocals sound almost frustrated but eventually consoled, through delicate melodies and dulcet tones, as the lyrics embrace how much they need the love they share while the band that they share becomes almost a second thought.
“Please Don’t Ruin This For Me” has a cascading riff on the guitar buoyed by hand-claps and maracas, while Moore’s voice sails to the top like a veil of silk, showing vulnerability and doubt. Lyrically like a deep stare into the mirror, or into her own soul, “Please Don’t” sounds like Moore singing to herself, one emotional, professional, intimate, and creative self, trying to find a truce with an ostensibly anxious self, and quiet any quandaries created by the unique life of touring and performing.
What’s conditional about these nuanced “relationship songs” is that the narrator is often taking a stance of waiting and seeing, as with “In The Morning I’ll Be Better,” the opening song that’s production dazzles with layered harmonies of Moore’s multi-tracked voice. These songs are tentative resolutions to whatever frustration, fight or difficult period falls upon two individuals essentially sharing a life, even if that detente only as far as the next daybreak.