Album Review - Tennis: Ritual in Repeat

“History repeats itself” is a mantra the husband and wife indie-pop duo Tennis must have taken to heart when they decided to conquer the sounds of three iconic decades within their young 4-year career. Their debut and sophomore albums, Cape Dory (2011) and Young & Old (2012) are guitar-driven, spring reverb-indulging throwbacks to California’s surf music of the 1960s. Last year Tennis released their EP, Small Sound, which quite ironically debuted their most comprehensive sound yet: more drum and keyboard driven songs with just the right amount of late 70s Muscle Shoals, AL soul. Their fourth-year, third-LP release, Ritual in Repeat continues this trend with its unmistakable throwbacks to the pop of the early 80s. From the hungry saw-tooth synths on the opening track, to the low and distorted synthesizer-created kick drum samples on the album closer “Meter and Line,” all 11 tracks are filled with audible artifacts from the 1980s.

At a time when many indie bands are choosing to drown the subtleties of their music in huge delays and reverbs creating a massive stereo landscape in attempt to pull the listener into the music, Tennis opts for a drier sound preferring small room reverbs and hard panning. This leaves room for the listener to be drawn in by the prevalent drum and bass led grooves and pop hooks too good to pass up. The album’s mid-tempo tone and classic production make it well within its comfort zone both in your CD deck in summer as you take on the winding mountain roads, or in your dimming bedroom as the sun sets and the introspective night begins swallowing you up.

“Never Work for Free” is one of the strongest songs on the album and the first single released from it. The song opens with a driving drumbeat you would expect to hear David Lee Roth howling over, but is quickly over taken by strong, up-front female vocals and a surf-guitar riff of which even Ezra Koenig would be jealous. In the chorus, minimal instrumentation allows the vocals to shine through with an exciting melody that bows in reverence to Whitney Huston. The song also fills the “minimum of one song about a prostitute per-album” quota the RIAA put in place from 1980-1994 (joking of course). In this case, the lyrics focus on a prostitute who has “Fallen in love with a traveling man.” This encounter requires the female lead to ponder what has brought her to this point insisting that, “I’m still the same” but longing for a place to hide “where our past can’t find us.” Confused, she insists she is “Looking for love” but the verses still echo, “I’ll never work for free.” This obvious uncertainty mirrors the contradiction often present in human nature and could also be a nod to the album’s title.

Along with Small Sound’s theme of lost love, Ritual in Repeat also blurs the lines between sensuality and religion similar to the light sacrilegious promiscuity that brought Madonna her fame. The mid-album ballad, “Bad Girls” opens with the lines, “Even bad girls can do good things. Even bad girls have holy dreams.” But later in the song, there opens up a blatant honesty we never got from Madonna, “Even bad girls have tender hearts. Even bad girls can fall apart.” The lines continue to blur as the protagonist speaks about being reborn by a newfound love, and in the chorus, love is spoken about in physical and spiritual terms right next to each other.

The song “Timothy” which was first released last year on the Small Sound EP, while a great song in its own right, feels out of place on Ritual in Repeat. The production favors their older 60s surf sound and being the only track on the album to have been put on a previous release feels quite dull when listening to the album through. At track 6 on the first few listens through, the song breaks up the album in an inconvenient way, killing the sense of excitement that had been building up. Its inclusion on this LP baffles me.

 Ritual in Repeat surpasses other recent albums that attempt to revisit the golden era of the 80s such as last year’s Arcade Fire release, Reflector or Brandon Flower’s Flamingo (2010) by never completely giving itself to nostalgia. Tennis keeps a fresh sound that draws from the 80s but never idolizes it. The second single from the album “I’m Calling”, next to taking throne as the sexiest song of 2014, is a perfect example of Tennis’ ability to balance the old and the new (which the title of their 2012 LP, Young & Old would suggest is something they strive for). In short, Ritual in Repeat is one Zedd remix away from having one of the most popular songs at EDM festivals next summer and one saxophone solo away from being the soundtrack to your mother’s senior prom.