Just about any article or post written about Denver-bred pop outfit Tennis has to make mention of the months-long sailing trip the husband-and-wife duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley took that birthed the band, and inspired their debut record Cape Dory. Allow me to pull back the rock writer curtain just a teency bit for a sec to admit that it’s a darn tempting hook. But, as Moore points out, it wasn’t always the pleasure cruise filled with linen sailor pants and champagne that many of said articles and posts like to insinuate. “I would say maybe 15 percent out of all of those months that we spent living on the boat and traveling, I was usually in perilous fear, like, uncontrollable fear,” said Moore in a July 2012 interview with Milwaukee’s A.V. Club. “Not that there weren’t numerous pleasurable experiences. The funny thing is that it is a romantic story, and the difficult moments and the sacrifices, that element is in every single romantic story.”
That dose of bitter with the sweet is part of what makes Tennis’s brand of pop so alluring. Take, for instance, the song “Baltimore” from Cape Dory. “We can take it, we can make it. These streets can’t be tougher than sea. Baltimore, your potholes bore me. Can’t you see you’re acting poorly?” sings Moore over a quick, surfy beat and a melody that wouldn’t be out of place on a Chiffons single. Tennis enlisted The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney to produce their sophomore record Young & Old, a record that featured upped production value and a slightly spikier sound.
Earlier this month, the band issued a new EP called Small Sound. The new record opens a tune called “Mean Streets.” In a sit-down with Interview magazine, Moore said the song was inspired by the late singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Laura Nyro. “She has a unique voice and was such a singular talent, I think, in a lot of ways,” said Moore to Interview. “She was always very uncomfortable with the scene, but I identified with her in a lot of personal ways, so I wanted to write a song about her.” The lyrics offer a glimpse at Nyro’s youth in the bronx, the titular “mean streets.” Moore sings, “Born and raised in these mean streets, that’s where she learned how to keep the beat. Some say that girl’s got something. I heard her name half a million times.” As a musical tribute, Moore and Riley really capture that sleek and slinky 70s pop vibe in which Nyro thrived. That said, the twists and grand-piano-driven turns offer more than just an imitation of the sound. Tennis inhabits the honey-dripped blue-eyed-soul of it, from the the lush arrangements to the fleshy, slow-grooving rhythms. It’s sweet and sensual, but Moore imbues her vocals with just a hint of breathless ennui, like she knows there’s something else out there that she can just grab. Whether it’s about Nyro, Moore, Riley, or anyone, it adds that bit of pathos to the story of an artist yearning to get off their hardscrabble block. It’s a romantic tale, but not a terribly sentimental one, and that’s what makes it true.