Thursday, September 6, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Tenniscoats - All Aboard!

By Steve Jones.

Tenniscoats are a prolific Tokyo-based pop band led by the duo Saya and Takeshi Ueno. All Aboard! is their second LP to be released this year. It has 10 songs and lasts 52 minutes.

Tenniscoats derive their name from the Japanese pronunciation of "tennis courts," and their website is drawn in crayon, so that should give you an idea of the kind of band they are. They've been around since 1999 and have an extensive discography which I am mostly unfamiliar with, sorry to say. Therefore, I'll be talking about this record as it is, and not in respect to Tenniscoats' past achievements. It's not a bad place to come from, though. The songs here explore a mellow, throwback sound that the band executes well enough to pique the interests of some new listeners.

On my first listen to this, my first Tenniscoats album, I was surprised and please to hear several similarities to Stereolab's approach. Most prominent was the way both bands were heavily indebted to the groovy sounds of '60s easy-listening pop and lounge music--plenty of slowly strummed, fuzzy guitars and lingering electric organ chords to be found. Both bands also had the slightly krautrock-ish tendency to lock into a beat and jam with it for extended instrumental sections between verses. But whereas Stereolab tended to be more musically adventurous, Tenniscoats stayed within a defined comfort zone, so that no song was too unpleasant or too challenging for the listener. It makes their music easy to like, but perhaps not so easy to find remarkable.

All Aboard! functions as music to chill to. It's something to play if you're in the backyard smoking hookah with your friends, of if you happen to find yourself wearing a tie and sunglasses whilst reclining in a faded green chair. Saya's voice is understated and floats with little resistance through your eardrums. The soft production compliments her voice, such that each instrument in a song is easy to distinguish, but no one part overwhelms. The session musicians blend well into each arrangement, adding different hints of color to each track, but the overall spectrum of the record remains firmly pastel.

While the album is designed so that no moment will offend the listener, its tweeness ultimately condemns it to mundanity. The majority of the songs are nice to hear, and it's easy to appreciate the sound Tenniscoats have crafted for themselves, but I don't see this music blowing anybody away. Not every album has to do so, of course, but I would have liked a few more moments like the track "Stones in the Boot," which uses a round of guitars to craft an Espers-like electric old-world folk tapestry. Most of the album is instead encapsulated by the sound of the Stereolabbish two-part "Shinjitsu Pan," whose one groove takes up one-fifth of the album. Again, there's nothing bad about it, but it has that slightly cardboard-like taste of generic cereal.

The album does somewhat make up for its more middling moments with its penultimate song, the sprawling 10-minute "Yume wa Sukkiri." Astute listeners will notice that it follows the same chord progression and almost the same meter as Sigur Rós' "Svefn-g-englar," which strikes me as a happy coincidence. It's a damn fine song structure, and I like hearing another band's take on it. Saya delivers her best performance of the album. Her voice is still soft and understated, but she finds a degree emotional resonance that is lacking from the other songs. Guitars dance around the mix, sustaining the beautiful fragility of the vocal melody, and the track wraps up with a lovely clarinet solo.

All Aboard! is a good album in the moment, but not one that I can say will be sticking with me near into the future. If you're looking for something that's nice and retro from a band you might not be familiar with, I'd say give Tenniscoats a chance. They're very good at what they do; they just don't do very much.

Score: Strong 6

(Steve Jones has the sudden urge to sew together a sport coat out of tennis balls. Anybody with experience in the field, please contact him at his Twitter @vestenet.)

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