TOPS: Picture You Staring

Don’t mistake Picture You Staring for anything more than a simple pop record. The second full-length from Montreal quartet TOPS comprises 12 examples of lithe, bubbly songwriting that winks at you even as it tears up. Rarely clocking in over four minutes, each song features the same sparse instrumentation (bass, drum kit, maybe two guitars, sometimes a synth, and vocals), as if the goal of their DIY recording sessions was to perfect a hooky single and a wistful ballad using only one set of tools. Fully enjoying TOPS’ 43-minute LP hinges on how many times you’d like to hear them try.

Picture You Staring considers itself an album of breezy AM radio hits, despite having been written by people who were born well after that was a thing. Captain & Tennille and Harry Nilsson are ostensible reference points, but it’s less disingenuous to call the music what it is: post-Ariel Pink bedroom pop. That’s not to say the Canadian band is aiming for Pink’s spot, as their sound is far too spry and lucid for such glammy psychedelia. No one would confuse “Sleeptalker”‘s heavy-lidded Danelectro fingerpicking and the funky skip of “Easier Said” for one of Pink’s considerable high points, but it’s possible they’ll eventually wind up alongside each other on hopelessly lovesick playlists.

Variety is of little concern for TOPS, so near-perfect songwriting and a dynamic tracklist is all the more important. The stunning “Outside” effortlessly reimagines Angelo Badalamenti’s Julee Cruise-sung “Falling” theme from “Twin Peaks”, casting singer Jane Penny’s waifish coo next to plush synth pads and wavering baritone guitar. But its quick three and a half minutes are soon missed, as “All the People Sleep” tries drawing a drowsy grin onto the melancholic mood. Picking the pace back up for Picture You Staring‘s second half, “Superstition Future” sets a nimble gait for its slinky guitar chords and singalong choruses to follow, with varied success; anti-anthem “Change of Heart” uses breathless whimsy and keyboard flourishes with more economical precision than “2 Shy”. TOPS return to weightless balladry for their dual finale, but no matter how deeply affecting each one feels, it’s hard to reconcile that “Driverless Passenger” is essentially a guitar-led preamble to the whispering synth flicker of “Destination”.

The structure of “Blind Faze” makes a fitting metaphor for Picture You Staring. Bright-eyed and charming, the song is built on a handful of earwormy riffs, Penny’s endearingly carefree melodies, and an unassuming dance beat. A perfectly likeable set of sounds, yes, but it’s preceded by a dazzling synth arrangement worthy of a standalone composition. The suite barely lasts over 15 seconds and is only revisited once, when it lilts underneath the perky reprise closing the tune. Just as TOPS finish the song without exploring that theme any further, so can ardent pop lovers appreciate reliable hooks, pithy songwriting, and familiar arrangements without much sublimity and innovation. But once those qualities do bubble to the surface, it’s hard not to wonder why they don’t show up a little more often.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork