Live Review: Tennis Takes One Step Off the Beach at Bottom of the Hill

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Tennis at Bottom of the Hill on Saturday night.

Tennis
Miniature Tigers
Devon Williams
Dec. 10, 2011
Bottom of the Hill

Better than: Watching a documentary on '60s music.

"This is a new one, it's called 'Origins.'"

Alaina Moore uttered this after the halfway point of Tennis' 14-song set at Bottom of the Hill Saturday. The night felt lethargic up to that point. Maybe it was the weather, the abundance of PBR, or just the nature of the band's beach-pop itself. The throwback rock style is ruled by nothing if not daydreamy escapism -- particularly Tennis's brand, which is more airy and much softer than contemporaries like Best Coast or Wavves.

This is nothing against the band's musicality or performance capabilities. Tennis' debut album, Cape Dory, was famously written while on a sailing trip. It's appropriately light -- music to listen to while wearing pastels and feeling a warm ocean breeze. People reacted to it live accordingly -- leaning on the walls with a slight head bob, dancing gingerly while keeping strong movement at a minimum. Eight songs into the headlining set, the most energetic point of the night still belonged to Miniature Tigers, which briefly inspired a dancefloor with "Sex On The Radio."

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But then came time for "Origins." Tennis diehards (assuming they exist for a band so young) probably recognized it as the band's latest single, released on a 7'" last week and due to appear on the band's second full-length, Young and Old, in February. "Origins" was new to me though. And if it represents a new musical direction for the band, it's set to sail away from previous material in the best way possible.

Moore has said Tennis chose "Origins" as the first Young and Old release because the track "shows a nice transition from the type of music we were doing before." The upcoming album is supposed to come with more grit and edge. Within the song's first 20 seconds -- as an electronic voicing comes in to echo a strong foundation laid by the bass -- my notebook started filling with ways this allowed the band's strengths to be repackaged in a much more appealing way. I hoped the track's '60s psychedelic, Jefferson Airplane like-feel wasn't some weird reaction induced by hearing it at an intimate San Francisco gig.

Both live and on the album, Moore's voice loses a lot of its power when forced to be too ethereal (glimpses of its potential appear on tracks like "Take Me Somewhere" or "Marathon"). On "Origins," she's given free rein to wail. The chorus gives opportunities for vocal work you can't find in other Tennis songs. The sound of her full-bodied voice had me Googling Grace Slick later in the night.

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Moore's husband and guitarist Patrick Riley is fully capable of writing and playing technically impressive licks (just listen to "Marathon"). However, most of the band's tempos are so relaxed, it's easier to envision his hooks on antiquated Jan and Dean tracks. "Origins" takes Riley out of his normal Tennis mode, and steers the guitar in a much heavier, more bluesy direction. He still gets a pretty finger-picking rhythm line for the verse, but the song's guitar solo was the most impressive musical passage of the night -- grundgier and more powerful than what we're used to with this band. It makes me wonder if the duo knew all along it'd have the Black Keys' Patrick Carney producing its second album.

Tennis went on to finish the set with a few of their better known singles (including "Marathon"), then performed "South Carolina" as an encore. Moore might not have been joking when she responded to sporadic "one more song" chants that "We only have one other song we can play."

It's easy to forget this band is barely a year old. Buzz for tracks like "Baltimore" hit in 2010, but Cape Dory was only released last January. While this body of work keeps the project under the radar for now, it also presents a distinct advantage. Tennis isn't married to a deep association history with any particular genre, where a drastic change could potentially alienate its core fan base. The year-end lists are coming out with Cape Dory noticeably absent. But then, beach-pop can only move a crowd so much. If "Origins" is indicative of what's to come on Young and Old, Tennis will make more headway (and heads sway) in 2012.

Critic's Notebook

Overheard: Tennis has limitations as a band name. It's always going to be tough if you don't play to search optimization in today's Internet-centric music culture. But I've never heard anyone question the name like this:

"Tough to break through with a name like Miniature Tigers. Maybe they should've been called Tiny Tigers, get some alliteration in there. Although, that sounds too much like a Little League team. Must've been why they settled on Mini."

'Tis The Season: SantaCon happened on the same day as this show, but there were only a few folks in heavy holiday attire at the show. Most notable was Buddy the Elf right against the side of the stage.

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Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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Bondonnalotus
Bondonnalotus

Btw, Wavves and Best Coast I don't enjoy listening to, they sound so 'nothing there' typical.Whereas Tennis and, just to mention, The Drums,... to my ears and sensibilities are 'the best' bands around right now, for current top quality songsmithery.

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