Young and Old, the sophomore album by husband and wife pop duo Tennis, is slicker and sharper than its predecessor, Cape Dory. Higher fidelity, greater urgency and intensity, and more emphatic percussion courtesy of the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney have blotted and polished out of the picture much of Tennis’s formerly scruffy charm. Tennis’s instant gratification melodies and countermelodies were always too rosy and sweet — for better and worse. So the tighter, more emphatic production of Young and Old is partly just fancier packaging of the same formula-tested candies — as always, best consumed in small doses. Still, there inevitably comes a point when confections such as these threaten one’s blood sugar levels, and the extra frosting here hastens the process. The opening track’s suggestion that “It All Feels the Same” is true only to a point — the comedown after the saccharine spike, which comes sooner than expected.
After the somewhat plodding opener concludes, on comes “Origins,” and its gently looping electric guitar riff, double-time keyboard, and swaying backbeat remind us that Tennis is a promising pop act. The couple’s nostalgia for the melody-driven pop songs of yesteryear may be run-of-the-mill, but their ability to channel it into formally well-executed song-craft is not. Other highlights on the album include “My Better Self” and “Robin.” The former begins as a rather dull, percussion heavy piano ballad, but when a slinky bass line and backbeat handclaps arrive about 70 seconds in, the song reaches another register. Propelled by another agile bass line, “Robin” also leads with its darting but addictive vocal melody and climaxes in its bridge’s keyboard backed bliss.
Not everything on offer is as rewarding. Led by a frantic carnival organ, “Traveling” takes the listener on an all-too-rickety ride. The call-and-answer speech singing of “Petition” is more grating still. More generally, nothing here combines instantly memorable and eminently repeatable as well as, say, “Marathon” or “South Carolina” from Cape Dory.
As far as it goes, the Tennis pop song still has its charms, for it generally continues to follow a certain tested recipe — if no longer to the lo-fi ‘T.’ But just how far does it go? That depends, I suppose, on the strength and stamina of one’s sweet tooth. Mine, for one, is loosing its bite with age. Although the promotional material for Young and Old indicates that its title is a reference to the Yeats poem “A Woman Young and Old,” it should come as no surprise that the music it offers is not the kind that inspires deep reflection. Whatever propositional content may reside in the lyrics — and I confess to paying little attention — the music is too monochromatically saccharine (whether cheery, wistful, or both) to faithfully conjure anything more than a narrow and fleeting slice of human experience.