Tops – Sugar at the Gate (Arbutus Records)

Tops are a four-piece indie rock band from Montreal, Canada. Previously, they have released the dark, spooky new wave synth disco of 2012’s Tender Opposites and then the relatively more driving and sun-kissed Picture You Staring in 2014. New album Sugar at the Gate, a reference to, according to the press release…how do I put this maturely… when a female… cums, is out now on Arbutus Records.

If you are familiar with Tops’s music, it should please you to learn that pastel coloured eighties synth lines are the order of the day on much of the record, and continue to be a major component of their sound. Despite the breezy inspirations behind the compositions, there’s a sorrowful, beating heart of darkness at the centre of the sugar pills on offer here.

Frontwoman Jane Penny has a rich, soulful voice, offering in places some of the distracted sass of Camera Obscura‘s Tracyanne Campbell, and in others sounding like Beth Gibbons of Portishead. Most of the time she just sounds heartbreakingly sad.

There’s eighties new romanticism on opener gloomy ‘Cloudy Skies‘, where Penny talks about her listlessness, with “nothing else left to do…no choice but to choose”.

There are a few undeniable bangers of the record. Bleak, tears-on-the-dancefloor bangers. Standout ‘Marigold and Gray‘ contains some stunning vocal lines and startling melancholic melodic shifts. The off balance reverb and hypnotic sleepwalk of Penny’s delivery and lyrics (“I’m not afraid of changes ’cause I don’t know what the chances would be”), not unlike Mac DeMarco and all that lot in dungarees and baseball caps. It’s the most exciting track on the album. Similarly, ‘Dayglo Bimbo‘ is more vigorous and brings to mind the same driving, off colour al fresco rock of Beach Fossils.

There’s a Blondie-like new wave stomp on ‘Cutlass Cruiser‘, which contains zingers such as “You are a cutlass cruiser / I’m just a part-time loser now” and “You don’t really think you’re that good do ya?”. It’s another high point.

The album is kind of a downer, though. There’s a difference between ambition and taking yourself very seriously, and unfortunately a lot of these tunes are at best, slightly bummed out breezy 8am-on-a-cloudy-Sunday-morning mood music, at worst slightly bland Fleetwood Mac wallpaper. Never bad, just not punchy enough. Penny’s voice is never boring, though, and she carries the songs through.

So, all in all, not quite tops, more upper middles…

Sugar At The Gates is out now on Arbutus Records.

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