REVIEW // TOPS – Sugar At The Gate (Arbutus)

This article originally appeared in DIY Magazine

Montreal’s TOPS have always been ones for taking the slightly more tacky fringes of pop and indie and transforming them from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. On their last couple of albums, ‘Tender Opposites’ and ‘Picture You Staring’, they mined the depths of saccharine ballads, wistful funk licks and cheesy pop, generally managing to polish them up into something acceptable, maybe even cool.

To record their latest album, TOPS moved to Los Angeles. True to form though, instead of picking out some contemporary palace of opulence, they opted to work within a site that encompassed the notion of faded glamour while also having that element of trashiness TOPS seem to love so much. ‘Glamdale’, a mini-mansion and former brothel in the Glendale area, was the prime spot to record, but despite the relocation TOPS have pretty much stayed true to their signature sound.

Indeed, with the sweetness of the jangly, slightly funky guitar melodies and Jane Penny’s uber-relaxed singing style continuing to wash over the record, ‘Sugar At The Gates’ seems like the most TOPS album title they could have conceived. While it may evoke a sense of honeyed nostalgia though, it’s a title that suggests a sense of utopia just out of reach, a closed door to anyone who doesn’t have the key. As such, ‘Sugar At The Gates’ is filled with moments where Penny’s nonchalance belies some pretty melancholic moments; even the opening lines of the whole album are “I’m looking up at cloudy skies / I look ahead and see my sorrow.”

The breezy ‘Petals’ seems pretty airy at first, but Jane drops in some fairly brutal observations on a lack of human connection in modern society: “got a phone full of numbers and a list full of names / no one to call, not much to say anyway.” Over light synths and the smallest touch of flute, she sings longingly about lost love on ‘I Just Want To Make You Real’, while on ‘Seconds Erase’ she gets truly contemplative, sounding achingly bittersweet when reflecting on days gone by, asking “who could pretend the days don’t pass them by” while also pointing out the futility of living in the past: “as you rewind, the seconds erase.”

It’s a shame though that some of these moments aren’t coupled with melodies that pack just a little bit more of a punch. The squalling riffs of ‘Dayglow Bimbo’ are probably some of the heaviest sounds TOPS have ever produced; ditto the harsh synths on closer ‘Topless’. But for the most part they’re happy to stay in the little niche that they’ve carved out for themselves and yes, it’s probably the point that the barbed comments are delivered in such a weightless, almost indifferent way. Unfortunately, although that slight detachment feels pretty good in the midst of listening, much like tucking into an ice cream cone with more than a few sprinkles, you might get brain freeze trying to recall some of the tunes afterwards.


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