How Do You Explain the Inescapable Charm of the Innocuous Band Tennis?

Tennis combines a Motown-styled bump with fairly anemic lifestyle music.

There was something quaint about the uncomfortably packed crowd at Club Dada last Thursday. After all, they were waiting with great anticipation for two acts that offered virtually no gimmicks, other than a propensity for strong pop songwriting. Tennis—perhaps the most wholesome indie rock band in America—headlined, with Poor Moon’s Christian Wargo opening the show.

Wargo was a case study in quiet Pacific Northwest smugness. He asked the audience what Dallas was known for, “besides really good drugs.” How many times have I heard that uttered by a touring musician since 1997? “I’m from the West Coast,” he declares at one point. “No shit,” I reply.

He has an impressive list of associated bands, which include Crystal Skulls, Fleet Foxes, and Danielson Famile. When he mentions Crystal Skulls in particular, a handful of men nearby grunt and yell with abandon. Wargo has a reputation, and it’s one that he’s earned.

His songs are a complex nest of sixties-radio single chord changes, and he even throws in an uncredited cover of the Kinks’ “Sitting by the Riverside.” Nobody seems to notice, but it’s a clever choice. Wargo hums the ragtime-like instrumental refrain of the original, since a piano is obviously not easily available.

The singer hunches over his minimal setup, and he whistles, and kazoos his way through his well-constructed songs. It’s a bit much at times. Though I mentioned the gimmicks were few, if Wargo has a crutch, it is his whistling. And his kazoo. Not everyone can pull off that most rare and ill-advised solo, the court jester of instruments. He is eventually joined by members of Tennis, which helps considerably. The whistling stops.

Tennis took the stage to an increased, though compacted hysteria, and absorbed the crowd’s approval with dignity. “Careless Whisper” is playing as they take the stage, and it is somehow perfectly dramatic entrance music. Early in the set, the lead singer dedicates a song to a mouse spotted in the band’s green room, and I almost leap to the nearest chair.

Perhaps the bar is set too low with modern songwriting, but it’s surprising to hear actual bridges in one evening. Tennis combines a Motown-styled bump with fairly anemic lifestyle music. This is very evident in a song like, “Petition,” which the crowd devours from beginning to end. Throw in guitarist Patrick Riley’s obvious affection for Johnny Marr and Lindsey Buckingham, full of meticulously plucked and melodious gems, and you have a band that dares you to feel anything other than helpless charm when they’re on. Every moment during the performance seems to soar ever upward, but with a wistfulness that is never too mournful, and never too pleased. That’s a tough, yet lucrative balance that most lightweight indie acts don’t achieve.

After one particularly well-received number, singer Alaina Moore remarks, “When I wrote that in our bedroom, I never thought anyone would sing along with me.”

“Singing,” might be an overstatement in this instance. While there was certainly some vocalizing of some sort, nobody in the room could likely hit some of the notes to which Moore catapults through the sky to reach. It was mostly drunks flailing around in close proximity, double-fisting as they sloppily danced and shouted with abandon. And yet in all that chaos, there was never a moment when I felt they weren’t playing directly to me.


All photos by Andi Harman.