TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Can you reinvent lively pop from the distant past? Music critic Milo Miles says the songwriting team Tennis does just that with their new third album, called "Ritual In Repeat." Tennis is singer Alaina Moore and guitarist Patrick Riley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CALLIN')
TENNIS: (Singing) Tonight they trace a fragile curve. The dim horizon that you serve. Holy movement, holy sound. A whisper rising from the ground. It's saying let me in, I'm callin'. Come on and let me in, I'm callin'. Can you feel it? Night is falling. I'm callin', I'm callin'. And now I...
MILO MILES, BYLINE: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are clearly passionate fans of the rock and soul sounds of the early '60s girl groups and Brill Building songwriters and producers. However, their new album "Ritual In Repeat" is a triumph, not because it conveys their fandom, but because it makes a sparkly pop style from 50 years ago fresh - ready for new fans now. This is a much trickier task than it might seem. Right through the '70s and into the '80s, reviving earlier modern rock and pop could rely on nostalgia and expert recreation. Elton John celebrated an oldie he made up in "Crocodile Rock" and the ska revival in Britain grafted current political protest onto a vintage Jamaican sound.
Eventually, the process broke down if you wanted to attract a younger audience with no living memory of the original style. By the 1990s, the so-called swing revival was able to reduce jump blues to a mere dress-up party. Since then, reviving vintage pop modes has only become riskier. Country bumps along of its days plainspoken and storytelling. But no question styles imply a sensibility. Heavy-metal doo-wop is always going to be a goof. So how to renovate the Brill Building? Tennis knows you start with songs that are quirky, pretty and saucy with just the right tone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER WORK FOR FREE")
TENNIS: (Singing) I never work for free. No, I can't give up. It never belonged to me. I never work for free. Like an incantation I've been repeated. Looking back from the outer edge, I'm still the same. Looking back from the outer edge, I've changed my name just to stay the same. Just to stay the same. Fell in love with a traveling man. I'll make him mine, do whatever I can. Fell in love with a traveling man. I'll make him mine, do whatever I can. Got me looking for love.
MILES: I doubt any vocalist other than Alaina Moore could nail the trills carefully carefree repetitions and nonverbal interjections that rise like bubbles through Tennis tunes. This is key because Tennis is more sounds, or at least moods, than stories or characters. Sure, you can hear there are boys and girls in love tangles, and Tennis is rather more pastoral than its city bound roots. And I think the song "Bad Girls," for example, is about why the singer got married. But I was infatuated with the tune long before I cared about what it was about.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GIRLS")
TENNIS: (Singing) Even bad girls can do good things. Even bad girls have holy dreams. Oh, I, I'm not so transparent. My intentions, they ain't so apparent.
MILES: "Ritual In Repeat" loses momentum in the second half and the couple tracks that are mere comely baubles are stuck there. But it still knocks the old out of oldies better than any album in years. Tennis does not do simple revival or re-creation, or even just repeat the rituals. So I pondered for quite a while what Moore and Riley's singular abilities suggested. Was it a marvelous actor interpretation, bringing back the feel of girl groups the way Chadwick Boseman reignites the spirit of James Brown? That still seem too tied to the sources. On "Ritual In Repeat," it's like Moore and Riley discover just how much ancient Latin - or in this case, extinct pop styles - is their natural language. They are fluent in Brill Building.
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed "Ritual In Repeat," the new album from the band Tennis. Coming up, we remember Tony Auth, a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist, who was also our colleague here at WHYY. This is FRESH AIR.
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