TrackAlbum / EP / Single
Building GodWe Can Die Happy EP
OriginsYoung & Old
High RoadYoung & Old
Deep In The WoodsForest Family FFR009
PigeonCape Dory
WaterbirdsCape Dory
Wounded HeartRitual In Repeat
This Isn't My SongRitual In Repeat
10 Minutes 10 YearsYours Conditionally
Modern WomanYours Conditionally

Tennis photo

Tennis: Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore



Tennis playlist


Contributor: John Hartley

The sky is azure blue. Not a hint of cloud dares blemish the blanket. Heat bounces off the bleached blades of what was once a lawn, adding further blush to already warmed cheeks. The cat wallows in the patch of dust where once stood the quince tree. It is mid-July, summer is well and truly underway, and the delicately gentle strains of Building God by Colorado’s Tennis waft through the air, catching on the occasional breeze that gently rustles the leaves that remain on the slug-nibbled hosta. The track is the fifth and final song on the band’s most recent release, an EP entitled We Can Die Happy. On days like this, it seems that we can indeed.

It hasn’t always been like this.

Rewind five and three quarter years and a heavy drizzle suffocates the first advances of the evening rush hour. The orange street lights punctuate a backdrop of black early winter sky, although the propensity of rain droplets means visions of the sky are more fleeting that prolonged. I turn down a side road of semi-detached domestic dwellings and hang around on the street corner, ten minutes too early for the 5pm appointment with a counsellor. I am depressed, in sore need of a way out of the mire in which my thought processes are firmly glued. The only music I have been able to tolerate for the last forty days is Young & Old, the second album by Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley. “Sensitive heart, you’re doomed from the start …” begins Origins. My mum always used to say I was a doomed Celt … “Imminent you seem to be a picture of fragility …” I might be, although to be fair I do not have the remotest sense of power that could be confused with yours, Alaina.

In one of my conversations with the counsellor, which range from car-crash-induced homelessness to workplace vitriol via unresolved adolescent abuses and the quandaries of being a ‘man’ in the modern world, I express concern at my near-obsessive listening to this album. The catalogue of music at my disposal is vast, with so much that has sound-tracked the best and hardest times of my life thus far, yet all I can do is hit ‘repeat’ every time this album reaches its conclusions. Nothing else comes close. Nothing else comes remotely close. In fact, the music I have loved and adored for years is an irritant, an unwelcome distraction. I am reassured that I should embrace whatever gives me solace, and be patient: my love of things now neglected will be rekindled in time. The sound of this album conjures up unexplainable memories of childhood, Christmases in particular, with the lilting melodies and Motown girl-group harmonies. Maybe I need to retrace my steps to that time to find solace? “Paradise is all around, but happiness is never found” cautions Alaina in High Road as I make my way to the bus stop and the 75-minute-long journey home. Just enough time to listen to the album in its entirety. Twice.

So perfect is Young & Old that I need to hear more, but simultaneously feel almost tangibly scared that whatever I hear next will never meet the heights of this album and by consequence tarnish my feelings towards it. I tentatively venture towards YouTube where I find a video clip for Deep In The Woods, the double A-side to Origins. Upper octave piano chords plink as one character plonks a sinister-looking binbag in the undergrowth of a remote house in the middle of what seems to be nowhere before being combusted. An unpleasant past has been dealt with, it would appear. “It feels like a change is upon us at last, consuming us fast, change is upon us!” There is hope and I am suitably encouraged to invest further.

Cape Dory duly arrives in the post. The band’s first album, it has the most unlikely ‘indie band’ artwork, suggesting the tackiness of mid-1980s middle-of-the-road pop. I cannot tell if it is an ironic statement; I worry that it is not. Fortunately, the music contained within is anything but middle-of-the road mid-1980s pop. Patrick Riley’s melodies and structures immediately indicate a barely hidden desire to be in a sixties surf band; his wife’s vocal lines and lyrics complement this ambition perfectly as she sings tales inspired by an eight-month sailing voyage around the coast of the USA. This is the sound of sunshine, salt water splashing on sunscreened cheeks and is the perfect tonic for a cloud-covered mindset. “South Carolina where the cypress grow … we can’t move on by looking back”. Well, sometimes we have to but I get the drift, and the joyful romanticism of these songs is almost impossible to resist. “Been reaching for my baby, grow sullen with my darling, I’ll hold the sheet tight, keeping watch through the night, I will be there, I promise to take care of you”. Pigeon is a musical comfort blanket and by the time the album closes with Waterbirds I can almost sense that everything will, one day, be all right: “Did we ever really leave? This is all I really need” sings Alaina as Patrick’s guitars bring about a reverberated crescendo of simple beauty.

April 2015, and I am finally crawling up the right side of the slope. Sure, there will be the odd misplaced step or loose rock along the way, but the bottom looks a fair distance below me now and I have safety nets to catch me should I lose my footing. Tennis have a new album out, Ritual In Repeat, and although in it I find that rarest of beings – a song I don’t actually like very much (I’m Callin’ is a tad too Madonna-lite for me) – once more I have a collection of songs to savour and celebrate. Internally I regularly recognise the profoundly positive impact Tennis have had on my recent life and feel compelled to share this with the band via Twitter. Unusually, I don’t embarrass myself and my appreciation is noted. One of the joys of social media.

Not long after I’m Callin’ comes one of Tennis’ finest moments. Stripped down to the bare bones, a song that revels in simplicity, leaving just melody, tone and timbre to do what they do best. “Here bring your Wounded Heart, here tell your anguish … A watcher is at the gate, an eager listener.” Gentle, soothing, warm and forgiving, this song has all the ingredients needed to provide comfort and reassurance when they are most needed; a musical arm around the shoulder. It seems as though Tennis are writing songs just to keep me going and “if it’s not the end then it’s the means” according to This Isn’t My Song. If I was still in any doubt, the song continues: “All these simple melodies find their way into your memory. This will never be my song, this one was meant for you all along”.

Life progresses. Tennis tour and even make a rare appearance on the shores of the UK. Then they head back out to sea, revisiting the same experiences from which their debut album was formed. Of course, we can’t ever go back; the past cannot be replicated, and the closest we can hope for is the triggering of memories and emotions that bring back similar sensitivities. The album that follows Tennis’ next voyages cannot ever be another Cape Dory, and neither should it be. However, the same melodic influence permeates the new recordings and the lyrics remain raw if not a little tainted by maturity. Yours Conditionally as a title in itself speaks volumes. “You could have me for ten minutes, you could have me for ten years … those who measure time and distance haven’t known a love like mine” sings Alaina on 10 Minutes 10 Years. I know I would rather have Tennis for the latter.

The closing track of Yours Conditionally, Island Music, is a definite hark back to the very first recordings made by Tennis, reflecting the gentle ebb and flow of the sea and smothered in a sea fret of reverberation and hushed vocals. However, it is the track immediately prior to this which provides the crowning glory of the album for me. It is probably fairly obvious that I myself am not a Modern Woman, indeed not a woman at all; however many of the factors prompting my earlier mental malaise stemmed from the challenges of being a modern man which, despite flippant comments made from both genders, remain very real challenges to many of us. The lyrics are wholly relatable to a man who lost the perspective that was salvaged largely through the decency, honesty and integrity of friends and family around him: “I’m so afraid you hate me I think I might have made it true,” sings Alaina to her own foil, continuing “all I want is comfort in a touch or a look, all I want is to get back the closeness you took”, and when this bridge eventually merges with the chorus and the two are sung in parallel, the song reaches a glorious and painfully heartfelt crescendo.

It is moments like these that make whole albums worthwhile: a musical and lyrical resolution of differing strands that make a definitive whole, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I have learned over the years to accept that this is as true of myself as it is of anything else. Some parts may fray, some might wobble, some might mischievously lead us down red-herringed blind alleys, but the whole remains the same. The sun still scorches down – there is a heavy threat of thunder in the air now though; no matter how much rain falls later, the clouds will inevitably part again in the not-too-distant future.


Tennis photo 2

Tennis studio albums & EPs: Cape Dory (2011); Young & Old (2012); Small Sound EP (2013); Ritual In Repeat (2014); Yours Conditionally (2017); We Can Die Happy EP (2017)

Tennis official website

Tennis lyrics

Tennis biography (Apple Music)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

Here are some of John’s other topper-posts: The Band of Holy Joy; The Beta Band; BOB; The Brilliant Corners, The Family Cat; The House of Love; James; McCarthy; The Mighty Lemon Drops; My Life Story; The Railway Children; Stereolab, Stornoway, The Sugarcubes, The Sundays

TopperPost #736


  1. Merric Davidson
    Aug 24, 2018

    If you haven’t heard any Tennis – and it seems there are a number of music lovers over here in UK, like me, who may not have – I can strongly recommend clicking on John’s spotify playlist for some truly gorgeous songs and singing. Just try the (overused word but not here) sublime Wounded Heart which clocks in at 1.50 of the sublimest sound. Play it on repeat.

  2. Rob Morgan
    Aug 24, 2018

    I’d never heard of Tennis before I read this brilliantly written article, and now I’m dipping into their catalogue I’m loving it. Wonderful writing about wonderful music, every article contributes to my ongoing musical education .

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