New Albums from Tennis and Islands

Not only have a been a little slow about reviewing music lately, but the albums I have been reviewing are still all from 2011 or earlier. I ended the year with a huge backlist that I’m still working through, and the first time that I went to buy new music this year wasn’t until Record Store Day. Even then, it took me a little over a month before I was ready to review the first two albums I bought. Both of them needed a lot of time before my opinion settled.

Young & Old cover

Tennis – Young & Old

Tennis’ album Young & Old took me some time to evaluate because it comes across as such light, forgettable pop that I didn’t believe it had much substance at first. But at this time, I can say that it stays interesting. I’ve tried putting it aside for over a week, and when I listen to it again, it’s familiar and welcome, not at all like an album that wears out its welcome.

Alaina Moore’s vocals are gentle and innocent, and the music supports a vision of the wide-eyed naivety of 60’s pop. Her lyrics have a cynical bite, though. Songs like “Dreaming” sound like odes to youthful love, but the refrain of “I’m dreaming I can still believe in you” make the narrator seem foolish and willfully blind. Maybe the happiest-sounding, most memorable hook of the album is Moore’s apparently-joyful announcement that “paradise is all around, but happiness is never found.”

The band never seems to be intentionally satirizing the optimistic songs that they mimic. See “Traveling,” for example: The song doesn’t shy from the fears and dangers of initially falling in love, but paint them sympathetically. The impression is that Moore is exploring these themes because they are personally relevant. When she opens one song with “a sensitive heart, you’re doomed from the start,” she could easily be talking to herself.

If you only buy one collection of light, upbeat songs about love this year (and really, would you need to buy more?), Young & Old is your best bet.

Grade: B

A Sleep & A Forgetting cover

Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting (Yes, the album art is hard to see)

There was a very different reason for why I waited so long before reviewing the new album from Islands. I love the band’s old work, especially their 2008 masterpiece Arm’s Way, and it’s hard to accept that their glory days may be over. Oh, A Sleep & A Forgetting is still a good album, but it never escapes the shadow of their best work.

In the past few years, the band has replaced youthful impishness with staid indie pop. It’s solid and enjoyable, but doesn’t highlight the interests that make their vocals so unique: Death, disaster, and the mechanics of the physical body are obsessions for the band, though they’re examined with macabre humor and clever wordplay.

The extremes of old are gone along with the catchier music. Instead of post-apocalyptic tribes looking for shelter or tiny gnomes devouring people, this album opens with several songs questioning reality: “In a Dream (it Seemed Real)” ties this theme to the album title, and the ideas of “This is Not a Song” carry forward to the next track, whose opening line is “this is not a band”.

It’s an appropriate concept for an Islands album, though it rarely rises above the basic ideas to come up with anything truly insightful or funny. They need more concepts like “No Crying”, an investigation into whether there’s something wrong with the narrator for not feeling bad when listening to sad songs. Even silly little ideas like “Can’t Feel My Face” (which suggests that the feeling leaves for “a better place”) would help. That line may not have their modern sophistication, but it provides a catchy lyrical hook to an album that feels a little dry most of the time.

A Sleep is a solid album, with plenty of decent songs and an unusual take on the lyrics. If this were my first Islands album, I’d probably be intrigued. As it is, though, I already know what the band is capable of, so I don’t need to see hints of it. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would regret this purchase, but that’s partly because it doesn’t make a very strong impression at all. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the forgettable pop album that I worried Tennis would deliver.

Grade: C+

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