Chasing a “timeless” sound is a self-defeating pursuit. Emulating the styles that have always been relevant only dates you upon arrival; meanwhile seeking what is untethered to history risks turning novel to novelty. You can’t set out to write “timeless” songs, but many bands try — whether by removing all distinctive qualities to their music until an un-anchored shell remains, or by distilling every era into an undefined-mush to conjure up all decades of popular music at once. Given the fruitlessness of this endeavor, it is amazing that any bands succeed in writing something refreshingly authentic but evocatively universal; wholly original, but immediately recognizable as classic.
TOPS excel in this domain, and have developed a craft for consistently seamless songwriting. The guitar lines wander delicately, stepping sensitively as to not disrupt the feathery ground of each song. The rhythms are punchy, breaking through the warm wash of synthesizers that encase the rest of the instruments together in a neat frame. Songs vary from crisp cries of desire and dejection to careful calls for intimacy and nostalgia, but all carry the same comforting emotive core. The fourpiece from Montreal consist of band members David Carriere, Riley Fleck, Alana DeVito, and Jane Penny — the last of whom I spoke on the phone with during a ten-hour stretch of road on the band’s way to Chicago for the start of their latest tour, which includes a stop at The Independent on November 12.
When I caught up with TOPS they had just left Detroit, where they were rehearsing songs new and old, as well as a few covers that they plan to bust out over the next month. Their setlists lean heavy on last year’s Picture You Staring, an album that so casually overflows with hooks that they seem to be accidently spilling out of the band’s pocket. Each seemingly off-the-cuff moment the band throws on record, however, absolutely sparkles. The band describes this sound as “a raw punk take on AM studio pop,” which they admitted was a “weird contradiction” that boils down essentially to “pretty classic pop.” Single “Sleeptalker” is an exemplifying dose of the simple, yet affecting pop music the band pulls together that feels weightless as it carefully delivers it’s bruises.
Even more remarkable is that the band self produces and records all their music. “It’s a lot more rewarding for us,” says Penny. “Instead of spending money that you lose, you learn how to do something that you can keep building on and can be a totally different relationship to music than just playing together and playing shows.” The band is currently working on their third full-length, but feel no pressure to rush the process. The way the band records, as Penny explains, allows them “to spend way more time on the recordings than we would if we had to rent a studio.”
The attention to detail shines blazingly throughout TOPS discography, but continue to evolve into increasingly impressive results. In September the band released the stellar single “Anything,” as well as it’s lo-fi accompanying video — which features a dazzling and dazed Penny singing on top a variety of motorcycles and trotting around a mannequin set on fire. She traces back the origins of the clip to a night coming home from the bar, when she stumbled upon a parking lot of motorcycles and decided to take pictures of herself pretending to ride them. “We kind of got the idea then and we wanted to make a video that was extremely accomplishable in one night and would cost zero dollars,” said Penny. “I talked to my friend Tommy who helped us with some other videos we had done in the past. We bought some gasoline and borrowed our friends car and cruised around filming stuff, and then I would just sit on other people’s motorbikes for a few minutes and do a couple runs of the song and would move on before anyone got upset with us.”
The sullen video fits the song’s morose temperature very well, and Penny plays a stirring centerpiece. She describes the inspiration for her character as a mix of a “girl-in-trouble” with the style of Natalie Portman’s character in the movie “Léon: the Professional.” The combination results in a heart-wrenching watch as Penny delivers lines like “Anything we did, I was not enough, now it’s gone, I don’t have anything.” Carriere wrote the song, with Penny contributing the vocal interpretation, but the band has no set way in which they go about composing their music. Sometimes they come up with ideas collaboratively and other times they approach the whole band with already fleshed out compositions.
The band’s latest offering is “Hollow Sound of the Morning Chimes,” a nearly seven-minute massage of subdued synths and Penny’s affectionate breeze of a voice that gives it’s last third to highlighting Carriere’s bright and buoyant guitar playing. The single has a gravitational pull that feels as gentle as the ripples from a stone hitting a lake, but by the time you hit the six-minute mark you find yourself deep within the song’s emotional center. It’s an audacious next step for a band who rarely broke a four minute running time on their last full-length.
Penny noted that the band feels particularly strong about their songwriting at the moment, and it will be exciting to watch as they flex those muscles on the new songs that will turn up as the band gets together their next album. Until then you can see TOPS demonstrate their live chops when they return to the Bay Area courtesy of KALX on November 12 to headline the Independent. This will be the band’s second appearance in the Bay Area within the last month, having most recently played a Treasure Island Night Show with Hundred Waters at the California Academy of Sciences. Penny remembers that show fondly, remarking on the sea horses and sea dragons she saw at the museum, as well as the karaoke room her band and Hundred Waters shared whilst in the city. This time around Penny hopes to take the rest of the band to see the Sutro Baths, but not before TOPS take their audience outside the edges of the present and to a moment that is distinctly their own.