Psychedelic synth pop band TOPS has released their second full-length album, Picture You Staring, and it’s a solid second album. In 2011, Montreal-based bandmates Riley Fleck (drums) joined Jane Penny (vocals and keys) and David Carriere (guitar) to form TOPS, with Madeline Glowicki (bass) joining the group for the self-written, -recorded and -produced Picture. The group is considered part of a Canadian scene that also includes Grimes (Claire Boucher) and Mac DeMarco. Upperclass students might remember Penny’s delicate voice, much like that of Grimes herself, at the band’s popular 2013 concert at the College.
Picture You Staring opens with the jazzy “Way To Be Loved.” It begins with a pleasantly surprising cowbell. The unusual percussion soon gives way to poppy guitars, keyboard and vocals with Penny’s lyrics retaining references to jazz through lilting rhythm and meter. Penny’s unique vocal quality, as heard on the group’s first album, 2012’s Tender Opposites, returns on TOPS’s second album, but seems slightly more grounded in the group’s sophomore album.
“Blind Faze” is characterized by a driving beat and upholds the combination of an upbeat tone with shrewd and provoking lyrics featured in “Way To Be Loved.” “All the People Sleep” features interesting harmonies and melodies, but an interesting tempo change emphatically pulls the song away from lethargy. “Outside” is the epitome of Picture’s recurrent ’80s and early ’90s influences: a kind of combination of the drums and keys from Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the bass guitar from Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” It works, and is also among the most poignant songs on the album. With some of the album’s more astute lyrics, “Outside” metaphorically describes the discomfort and risk of letting someone into one’s life and mind: “You look at me as if you know what it’s like / in the shadow of the streetlight.” “Circle the Dark” also demonstrates elements of ’80s pop throughout the album. Here Penny’s voice, as well as the overall tone of her lyrics, is reminiscent of Kate Bush. It is one of the most interesting songs on the album, but lyrics in the bridge felt clunky and inconsistent with the otherwise concise song.
The second half of Picture You Staring is somewhat inferior to the first six songs. The melodies and song structures become too simple and the lyrics slide toward predictability. “Superstition Future” is particularly prone to both these errors – an unsophisticated melody and lyrics of “crying all the way home / left with my lonely heart.” “2 Shy” and “Change of Heart” are not memorable, and “Easier Said,” with its monotonous percussion and robotic back-up vocals, feels trapped in an unpleasant mechanical loop. In what might have been an interesting turn toward a ballad of straightforward sorrow, “Driverless Passenger” forgoes all the album’s buoyancy, ironic or otherwise, but unfortunately fails to hook the listener. Similar to “Easier Said,” “Destination” incorporates synth beats and sounds that seem jolty and rather void of intent, although this style is somewhat more interesting than that of “Driverless Passenger.”
Picture You Staring is alternately exciting, expansive, contemplative, relatable and relaxing (with an unfortunate trend toward the boring). The album provides a nice mix of upbeat and ethereal sounds, both within as well as among tracks. The lyrics are usually of average interest, sometimes enthralling and occasionally mediocre. The album distinguishes itself with interesting interpretations of and references to previous genres as well as an incorporation of contemporary sounds, demonstrating a trajectory of growth and exploration since the band’s exciting debut. Picture You Staring represents a very solid sophomore album from TOPS, and their upcoming work is eagerly anticipated.