Seeing as how both are built of powerful frontwomen, bandmate husbands and a fondness for key-fueled retro-minimalism, Tennis and Love Inks could have followed identical indie paths. The two trios are built much the same, but function in completely different ways.
The two acts did not share a Portland bill in mid-December, nor did they share a single venue. Instead, and fittingly so, the two glimmering young bands played independently of one another, before different-sized crowds in opposing clubs.
Hell, they probably don't even know each other. Until now.
Tennis (12.12.11 Doug Fir Lounge)
I like when a venue matches a sound. Like drinking wine in a vineyard, there's a completeness about it that imparts an extremely attractive additional sensory layer. For Denver's Tennis, the Doug Fir makes a lot of sense. The building's clean architecture and mid-century modernism go hand-in-glove with Alaina Moore's soulful, effervescent vocals and partner Patrick Riley's surfy, vintage guitar riffs.
Tennis is still riding the wave of standout debut Cape Dory. In the midst of a phase many bands lose out in, Moore and Riley have held strong, attracting the production aid of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. Tennis tested material from sophomore release, Young And Old—due out next February—on the crowd. And while the new record is not as strong as the first, it's far too good to warrant the hesitation Tennis displayed in playing from it. Perhaps it's adapting to the new songs, perhaps it's getting used to the occasional extra band member on stage, or perhaps Tennis was just exhibiting some good old-fashioned stage fright.
By mid-set, Tennis was in its comfort zone. The band breezed through a woozy version of "Pigeon," a track that could be snuck seamlessly into any DJ's set from Prom Night, 1965. Riley upped the volume of his amp for "Seafarer," a rock 'n roll meets doo-wop track featuring the scratchy, off-note guitar riffs of punk, but groomed to the softer ways of early 1960's beach pop. Moore's vocals were in charge throughout, crackling and commanding like an address from a principal on a dated PA system.
If anything, Moore's voice gets creamier on Young And Old. The product of a self-described "Motown phase," the new stuff is noticeably richer and more soulful. Moore leaves her keys with confidence, twirling the mic cord in one hand and the mic itself in the other. Her grip must be tight, because she sings with the composed strength of a downright diva. The piano still features prominently (set to standard, organ and synth modes), but the rest of the band takes on a heavier load.
With "My Better Self," Tennis flexed its pop sensibilities. The radio-friendly track is a highly sweetened morsel of catchy keys and comatose percussion one might mistake for an Adele piece. Meanwhile, the band reinserted its creative side through "Traveling," a song constructed out of dueling, dizzying organ melodies and barreling guitar speak that sounded as if it was underwater and coming up for air.
Love Inks (12.13.11 Bunk Bar)
Closer to the river, Love Inks played before a few stray faces at Bunk Bar. The Austin band reminds me of Tegan & Sara and the XX. Vocalist Sherry LeBlanc sings like a down-and-out teenager in detention, disenchanted and whispery, as though stuck in a library. At first listen, she seems tired and uninterested, but it's the perfect pairing for the group's hazy, slightly-electronic ways. The whole thing could pass for a dream.
Love Inks has yet to carve out the following Tennis currently enjoys. Yet, opening for White Arrows (the LA psych-pop act that rocked Portland with one of the best MFNW performances earlier this year) is no small potatoes. Impressively, the three-piece can capture your attention using very little in the way of tricks and techniques. In terms of instruments, there's rarely more than an echoing guitar, a dry drum sample and LeBlanc's signature flyaway vocals in any given Love Inks link. Whereas Tennis sounds of the sea, Love Inks is the reverberating windsong of a delicate, landlocked canyon.
If the band owns a hit, it's "Black Eye." The stripped down, playful track epitomizes bedroom pop, equal parts sedative and seductive. Kevin Dehann's bass carries the track, and at Bunk Bar, his rhythmic walking lines served as an outstretched hand the small audience couldn't help but grab. After a few more tracks from full-length E.S.P.—including a notable cover of David Essex's "Rock On"—the set was complete.
Brief shows, even from openers, can leave you wanting. However, Love Inks operates like a poet, using words (or in this case sounds) sparingly but to great effect. Therefore, the thirty minute performance seemed natural and felt satisfying. It mirrored a starkness or bluntness that runs though all of Love Inks material. Unapologetic, without pretension and very understated.
In many ways, the trio is like a rare Pacific Northwest Thunderstorm, with a gentle distant electricity that only comes occasionally, and in brilliant flashes. And if that's the case, husband-and-wife counterpart Tennis is the stirring sea 70 miles to the west.