Jane Penny, the frontwoman of Montreal band TOPS, stares out from the cover of her band’s latest album, I Feel Alive, in a crisp, tightly cropped close-up. Despite the closeness though, she is not staring at the viewer, she’s looking somewhere slightly above, as if there is some kind of spectre behind you. She looks dazed, or distracted, the way one does when having a passport photo taken, or waiting for a red light to turn green. It’s charming, maybe a little unnerving, but you can’t help wondering what she’s thinking about, what she’s looking at.
The picture encapsulates everything wonderful and occasionally inscrutable about TOPS. Over the course of nearly 10 years working together, the four-piece has honed their style of lush, sometimes quite surreal soft rock into a form that nods to the moments when we think nobody is watching – perfect soundtracks to the abject thoughts and romantic daydreams that occupy a distracted or delirious mind.
At their best, TOPS’ songs are fantasy worlds unto themselves, expansive gardens populated with bright new colours and vivid flora: easy to become enamoured with, even easier to get lost in. In the past, this quality has worked against TOPS at times: the ambling, smoke-haze ambience of their earliest records meant they could often drift out of focus. Not so on I Feel Alive. Like its cover art, the band’s fourth album presents TOPS at their clearest and most direct. It’s a 35-minute communion on the complexities of love and solitude, presented with a refinement that reveals the fruits of the foursome’s workhorse persistence over their career.
TOPS has the peculiar distinction of being an aesthetically modest band with a rarefied pedigree: formed in Montreal by Penny and co-songwriter David Carriere, the band released its first three albums on Arbutus Records, the prominent Québécois DIY stalwart that has released records by experimental producer-turned-pop star Grimes, composer Lydia Ainsworth and synth-pop duo Majical Cloudz, among others. Both Penny and Carriere previously played in a band, Silly Kissers, with Sean Nicholas Savage, a weirdo hero of internet DIY and mascot, of sorts, for the Arbutus scene, and continue to collaborate with him. Most recently, Penny starred in Savage’s musical Please Thrill Me, which premiered earlier this year at Montreal’s La Chapelle performance centre. Unlike many other Arbutus acts that have gone on to moderate success though, TOPS have never jumped ship to a label with more money or a bigger footprint. While I Feel Alive was released on the band’s own imprint, Musique TOPS, it is still distributed by Arbutus, and the band are still managed by Sebastian Cowan, the label’s founder.
That TOPS steadfastly remain part of Montreal’s DIY community is not for a lack of ability or appeal. Penny, Carriere, drummer Riley Fleck and newly installed keyboard player Marta Cikojevic are, by most measures, a hugely popular band. On Spotify, nearly 900,000 people stream the band every month, with their most listened-to songs accumulating north of 40 million plays. Of course, this is a deceptive and crude metric, but it does indicate a certain popularity beyond the usual parameters of DIY music.
I Feel Alive does not offer any indications that this popularity has had an effect on TOPS’ music. The album is a true continuation of what came before, taking the twilight-hour musings of its predecessor, 2017’s Sugar at the Gate, and tweaking them in small and subtle ways that can be indiscernible on first listen.
The key difference between Sugar at the Gate and I Feel Alive is in fidelity: any lo-fi grain that clouded the edges of TOPS’ music previously is now gone, replaced with a dazzling clarity that pulls the band’s sound the furthest from pastiche it has ever been. References to Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan have often followed TOPS throughout the band’s career, and while there’s still a sleaze reminiscent of the Steely Dan classic Gaucho on I Feel Alive, as there was on Sugar at the Gate, the comparisons have never been less apt. This record instead plumbs the depths of forgotten British new-wave songs, lily-white disco and the most earnest corner of ’70s AM radio schlock. It’s a dizzying and beautiful synthesis.
The album opener “Direct Sunlight” takes a big step outside TOPS’ comfort zone – Fleck’s drums churning underneath bright, crisp synths and a delightfully gaudy flute solo from Penny. The song grooves and soars, playing like a 2020 update on Bee Gees-y disco. “Colder & Closer”, the centrepiece of I Feel Alive, emulates the minor-chord intimacy of New Musik, its cavernous production and echoing drums pulling the band into a space that’s darker and more immediate than the abstractions of their previous work suggested they could ever go.
The songs on I Feel Alive work to conjure specific feelings – or, to borrow an overused term, “moods” – as much as they sketch scenes or stories; a great, and underrated, quality. Although “mood music” is often used as a pejorative, this is not algorithmic vibe music: instead, it feels like stimulus, an opportunity for a listener to make their own imprint on the scene the band sets. This is music to inhabit, rather than to dissect.
I Feel Alive, as a title, seems to refer to general aliveness, and all its attendant hardships – sadness, falling in and out of love, anxiety – as opposed to an exclamation of joy. And the album feels more emotionally unified than its predecessors, its 11 songs tied by their earnest, empathic explorations of loneliness.
On the album’s title track, Penny sings, “Conversation that I did not like, faces in the street I wish I didn’t recognise,” flipping its blue skies chorus into a song about the anxieties that inevitably accumulate as a result of merely living. TOPS’ songs often feel like hazy, hallucinatory fantasies, ideal listening for the liminal, bluish hours of the evening – but that fantasy often cracks on I Feel Alive, finding Penny reckoning with the fact that life is rarely as fantastical as it may seem. “My favourite ballads and sad movies don’t do nothing for me now,” she sings, mournfully, on “Ballads & Sad Movies”.
Many will see TOPS’ refusal to dramatically depart from the sound they have been refining since 2012’s Tender Opposites as evidence of a lack of new ideas. In reality, it is a small triumph. As musicians are being encouraged to treat their music as disposable, high-churn content – a cycle only intensified by the omnipotence of streaming – TOPS’ ability to maintain a significant following without bowing to the pressures of the attention economy is galvanising. It’s an idea easily forgotten, but niche art that evolves subtly – the kind of music TOPS make – is just as worthwhile as that of high-output artists who reinvent themselves entirely from release to release.
TOPS’ DIY-to-the-core ethos has meant the band can mine the full expanse of their sound without pressure to change. In many ways, they are living the dream of “working hard and finding an audience naturally” that so often feels like a fantasy. Then again, TOPS have always had a knack for manifesting the most far-fetched fantasies.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2020 as "TOPS of the pops".
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