Mellow Montreal pop band Tops is at a tentative level of success where everyone I know seems to have heard of them, but no one can really say where they came from. I latched onto 2014’s Picture You Staring through some friends in Detroit (there’s a strong love between Detroit and Montreal right now) and wore that smooth, Julee Cruise-esque record right out. I recommend listening to Tops at magic hour, while walking around Southeast Portland and petting neighborhood cats. It’s a good situation.
Tops occupies an unusual spot in Canadian indie pop. They’re signed to Arbutus—a great Canadian record label that introduced fans to Grimes and Lydia Ainsworth—but their labelmates are primarily electronic or experimental artists. Tops is kind of an aberration, a traditional indie-pop band among ravers.
“In our scene there’s a divide,” says vocalist Jane Penny. “There’s a lot of people doing electronic music, but David and I found the idea of playing in a regular band very appealing.”
Despite regular lineup changes, Penny, guitarist David Carriere, and drummer Riley Fleck remain Tops’ three constants. They shape their recordings into classic, easygoing songs that utilize their individual talents.
“My voice is kind of weird,” Penny says. “Plus, Riley drums more quietly than other drummers, and David has a very rare thing nowadays where you can hear that he’s playing guitar on a recording. There’s an attitude within Tops of wanting to do something new, but within a classic structure of songwriting. I feel like we all just wanna make like Joni Mitchell-level songs but with Vanessa Paradis production. Production-wise, we all really get into French pop.”
A Tops song flows like a conversation, and throughout the creation of their new record, Sugar at the Gate, Penny and Carriere (who share songwriting duties) ended up having a very difficult conversation.
Penny’s hesitant to discuss her breakup with Carriere. “We never talked about being together,” she explains. “Neither of us had any interest in being a couple band, and we were also aware that, when women musicians work with their significant others, a lot of times people use that to even further diminish the role that the woman has in the creative project. But then I thought, maybe it’s nice for people to have an example of this happening, because our relationship didn’t collapse.”
Sugar at the Gate is an odd but psychically good record because it’s about exploring a breakup from a positive point of view, looking past anger and even trying to get creative. The song “Further” sounds like it could be about polyamory, although I’m probably just reading into the music video (which Penny directed). The chorus opens with, “Is it time to start again/I know we’ll never win,” expressing that pre-exhaustion couples can feel as they dread the emotional acrobatics involved in a return to dating. But then the chorus continues with the hopeful “Walking down the line/further,” which suggests that, instead of an experience stopping, it deepens. Is a breakup the end of a relationship? Sure, but for Tops, it’s also a new chapter.