There’s a backstory that has to accompany all writing about Tennis’s new LP, Cape Dory, and the backstory is basically this: The band consists of a young married couple, from Denver, who bought a sailboat, spent months tooling around the East Coast, and then went home and wrote an album about it. If this sounds a bit like a romantic comedy to you, then maybe the album will, too. It’s fairly good at that. It’s all extremely cozy, winsome indie-pop one imagines apple-cheeked comic-book teenagers dancing to it in a gym in the very early sixties. The guitars have a tasteful dust and twang to them, and singer Alaina Moore’s voice can be charming, especially when she pipes up into the high notes, girl-group-style. (The song “Long Boat Pass” is smart enough to just have her do that several times in a row.) I’ve enjoyed listening to Cape Dory about as much as anything else this week, but there’s not a lot of mystery to it: It’s the kind of record that’s a charming fantasia to some people and way too cute for everyone else.
The difference between those groups of people might, in some cases, be about something more cutting than simply taste in music: It’ll stem from how certain listeners feel about being middle class right now. That’s true of a lot of things that get most of their press on the Internet, but it’s a little harder to escape here. One of the main things Cape Dory offers is a feeling of intense coziness — not just the fuzzy-blanket variety, but the young-lovers-sailing-together variety. In the early days of indie-pop, playing this kind of music had an air of bravery or contrarianism around it, a proud romanticism. Here it’s just languid and content, a quaint dream. And some part of the appeal of listening to the album is basically aspirational — letting yourself embrace this starlit, storybook air. I mean, a sailboat! (From a band called Tennis!) “We’ll make a family in the quiet country,” Moore sings. Or: “Can we get a job? / Is that asking a lot?”
At this date, I can’t think of much that this band’s target audience is more wary or conscious of than this version of cozy romance, especially when it reads as quirky or homespun — for a lot of indie fans, there’s nearly as much suspicion of being charmed by that as there is of being charmed by a particularly winsome Target commercial. Consider also that the whole sailing-adventure narrative is itself basically working through some obvious questions about class and lifestyle: Running away into simplicity, staring at stars instead of a desk, contemplating quiet countryside and bemused questions about jobs. That boat: It has next to nothing to do with the quality or charm of this record, and yet it’s like a grand marker of how a do-it-yourself ethos can move from finding a voice to finding a picturesque vacation. I imagine we’ll be able to say something along those lines about one semi-popular indie record a week for the next few years, because middle-class people are not going to work out this conflict anytime soon.
This week’s releases include some indie records that shoot in other directions, too, of course. Native Speaker, by the Canadian quartet Braids, is comfortable in a much headier way. The band’s in love with pulsating little clusters of notes, and the album’s a pristine, airy wash of guitars and keyboards, sparkling and chiming. It’s singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston who anchors it and makes it interesting, and she lets you know how she’s going to do it right from the start: After murmuring a few lines, she yelps — “Have you fucked all the stray kids yet?” — and spends the rest of the album toying with exactly that kind of leap, between a lazy coo and a dose of tension. Or else there’s Fergus and Geronimo, two young Texans who moved to New York and just released Unlearn — an album that seems weirdly scattered, until you figure one of them wrote all the goofy, deadpan folky numbers and the other wrote all the goofy, deadpan rock-and-roll ones. Their rickety basement pastiche manages to encompass a lot, actually: It’s funny, snotty, joyous, spiteful, sometimes even soulful.
But the band getting all the shine is by the Smith Westerns, a surprisingly young group from Chicago whose second album, Dye It Blonde, folds some glamour and romanticism into the scruffy garage-rock they were making before. The album’s full of slow-motion melodies and big George Harrison guitar bends, all produced to seem as bright and striking as sun on snow. I can’t help thinking about the Brooklyn band MGMT, who collected a lot of fans with an arch, tie-adjusting, pranksterish version of similar sounds; Smith Westerns’ warm-and-beery poeticism might strike some as an option that’s easier to really embrace.