TOPS are a pop band from Montreal who release with independent label Arbutus Records. For a band that effectively came out of Montreal’s punk scene, their influences are distinctly populist. ‘Picture You Staring’ is their second album, and across its 12 tracks it calls to mind the genres and styles of smooth radio and VH1: soft rock, schmaltzy ballads; styles once considered anathema to ‘serious’ music fans and critics for their perceived inauthenticity, and emblematic of ‘80s pop music industry excess.
However, there is absolutely nothing excessive about ‘Picture You Staring’. The album was written, recorded, produced, and engineered entirely by the band at the offices-cum-studio of Arbutus Records, giving the whole thing a lo-fi sound and a DIY spirit, like a house party band playing arena band songs. TOPS also seem to have a genuine emotional investment in this era and its songwriting style (how many bands write decent ballads anymore?), making ‘Picture You Staring’ more than the stylistic pastiche or semi-ironic retro throwback that a less adventurous band might have been content to make. Besides the overtly Take My Breath Away-referencing Outside, their influences come through as vague allusions – maybe a bit of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, maybe a bit of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, maybe some ‘Tango In The Night’ elsewhere, some Hall & Oates, etc. – making the whole thing reminiscent of an album like Ford & Lopatin’s ‘Channel Pressure’, where the music of AM radio seemed to have been unconsciously absorbed rather than meticulously replicated.
This is a longwinded way of saying that TOPS just sound like TOPS, and most of the credit for this goes to singer Jane Penny, whose voice – treacly and saccharine, but carrying a sort of resigned melancholy – brings out the best in the band’s songs, even if her lyrics are basically inaudible (which, to be fair, seems less like an aesthetic decision and more down to the technical and financial limitations of the album’s recording process). Credit also has to go to David Carriere’s distinctive, melodic guitar work, which shines through on songs like Circle The Dark, Superstition Future, and the subdued Sleeptalker. Where other bands might rely on texture, atmosphere, and distortion to mask an undeveloped songwriting, TOPS pride themselves on the clean, deft interplay of their instruments, grooves, and vocals, which lets their intelligent, considered arrangements shine.
It’s really, really effective, and ‘Picture You Staring’ contains some of the best traditional pop music you’re likely to hear this year. I suppose that this might also be to the record’s detriment, because whichever way you cut it, it is traditional – there’s not the slight weirdness of sound or unconventional writing style that songs like VII Babies or Double Vision from their debut album ‘Tender Opposites’ had. That’s not to say that ‘Picture You Staring’ is not adventurous or ambitious, but this ambition seems to be to attain a sort of pop purity within their own sound rather than to break new musical ground. But then again, that doesn't seem to be part of the TOPS mission statement either way, and when you have songs like Outside, Way To Be Loved, and Destination on the album – songs that achieve that level of transcendent pop excellence that they seem to be striving for – it’s hard not to find ‘Picture You Staring’ totally charming.
Arbutus Records release 'Picture You Staring' on September 2nd 2014 (buy).