I used my iTunes this morning to buy the new album by Tennis, which is the one where that attractive couple buys a yacht and sails around the Eastern Seaboard and then makes a record about it (and apparently, don’t feel guilty about it, but that’s just how it goes, as we are in one of those pop epochs right now where it’s OK or even encouraged for rock bands to be, or at least act, rich, like the late 1980s, or the mid-1970s).
Anyway, the first song was nice, and it reminded me of beloved bands of the previous decade, like the Slumber Party, who still sail around my dream-pop reveries at night in a big, beautiful ship powered by tom-tom drums. It was pleasant. “Nice first song,” I thought. “I guess this is pretty much what the record’s going to be like.”
Then, suddenly, the second song came on, and audience members (audience members?) started hooting. “Where did the audience members come from?” I wondered. Then, the drums kick in, and it’s this joyous, meandering surf-y instrumental, and the audience is hooting along. I got really excited. “I love these meandering surf-y instrumentals!” I shouted to myself. Slant 6 used to do them, all the time! Maybe it was the part of the album where the band is creating an audio montage of meeting up at the surf bar, the night before they push off for sea and sail to Cape Dory and South Carolina and the other geographic locations mentioned in the upcoming song titles. And all their friends are there in sailor outfits and Ted Kennedy outfits, and drinking maritime-themed cocktails and spilling them on each other and calling each other “salty dog”! I felt excited. Throwing on a surf instrumental with hooting audience noises in the number two slot on the track listing is an exciting way to ratchet up the wordless emotions one feels before departing for a long trip. Holly hell, did I feel like I was ready for a maritime adventure!
Then, of course, I looked at my iTunes. I remembered someone (probably me) had put it on “shuffle.” And that the song was not the second song on the Tennis album, “Long Boat Pass,” but actually a track by Chicago’s long-defunct Coctails, “Wheels.” It was all a fraud. I had been deceived by the 1990s yet again, and not for the last time. I have posted “Wheels” above. Stylistically, you can see, it’s in the same apartment as Tennis: reverb-laden, splashy cymbals, drawing on Phil Spector and the Feelies.
So after realizing my error, I went back to the Tennis album. The real second track, “Long Boat Pass,” is nice, too (maybe the best song on the album). But it’s a conversation between the singer and the singer’s presumable sailing partner. There is no one wearing a Ted Kennedy outfit and drinking a brandy in a noisy surf bar. It’s just the singer and the singer’s partner, sitting by themselves in the dark, having what we used to call in middle school an “A-B conversation” (punchline: “so C your way out”). It struck me as very lonely. That’s the sad thing about this Tennis album, now that I have listened to the whole thing — despite being about a boat trip, about two people going out into the world, it’s basically inwardly looking. And not in the fun way Belle and Sebastian used to be, where you were tacitly invited to mope along. There’s a chilliness. The dominant pronoun is “we.”
I am grateful, though, for my iTunes’ deception. It made it seem as if The Coctails had crashed the party the night before the launch (since it is such a narrative-heavy song cycle, they even came in at the right time). Listen to “Wheels” above. The camaraderie and sense of celebration makes the resulting songs seem even lonelier and more isolated. Just two people, out to sea. The unscheduled instrumental party the night before makes me feel more acutely aware that I am back on land, and I wasn’t invited on Tennis’s boat trip in the first place. I hope they had a good time and found what they were looking for, but I am glad I wasn’t there.