Picture You Staring

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TOPS come from a crew of Montreal-based creative types who collectively cobbled themselves together through loose affiliations with the Artbus Records label and the warehouse studio/performance space where many of the bands and artists of the scene experiment with their boundary-pushing ideas. While some of the most visible output connected to this particular sect of Montreal music-makers came in the form of Grimes' quirky electro pop and Blue Hawaii's melancholic indie minimalism, lesser-known players like Doldrums, Sean Nicholas Savage, and TOPS tapped into this strange collective energy with equally interesting and often far stranger results. With their second album, Picture You Staring, TOPS continue the muted, home-recorded take on jazzy sophisti-pop they began on 2012’s Tender Opposites. Singer Jane Penny's wispy, plaintive vocals are front and center of every song, but always a little bit out of focus, submerged in the blurry recording quality and always competing with guitarist David Carriere's wiry leads. Earlier recordings drew comparisons to Ariel Pink's wooly recording style, and the flange-coated guitars and lo-fi sheen of “Circle the Dark” back up this reference point, sounding like Ariel Pink going through a heavy Fleetwood Mac phase. Moments later the airy “Outside” sounds enormous by comparison, with '80s dream-ballad synth tones and a chorus-heavy bass melody blatantly borrowed from Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” TOPS have their moments of '80s soundtrack nostalgia, but the album as a whole tends to be more complex and reaching. Threads of mystery and distance hold the album together, in both its dreamy, far-off moments (the reverb-glazed harmonies of lullaby “Sleeptalker”) and its more direct, upbeat tunes (the weird jazz-funk shuffle of “Superstition Future” or the bounding '80s-modeled dance pop of standout tune “Change of Heart”). What makes Picture You Staring so deeply enjoyable is the band’s acute sense of when to obscure their sound and when to let it shine through. Walking this tightrope, TOPS never go so far off the deep end of their experimental recording side to completely hide their sad-hearted hooks.

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