Tops (photo by Daan Hutting)


She is buoyant, rolling her shoulders in a red cotton shirt. The stage is pouring with energy, the kind you rarely get – not mad, or athletic, but the feel of an afterglow dance at a house party, when everyone has left the living room and Fleetwood Mac has arrived on the speakers to venerate a young couple in the act of holding each other. That’s hard; plenty of artists find soft rock a tough nut by any standards, despite what Daughter would have you believe. And this girl – Jane Penny, with her stormy red sleeves and miles-away waitress smile – has cracked it.

She is the frontwoman of TOPS, a gem of a band from Montreal. They are fantastically well-attuned to what made the end of the 70s soar for radio airplay in the States and anywhere that copied it. On record, the group are somewhat bloodless, preferring instead to hit a graceful guitar melody that never runs at hurdles, twirling and arpeggiating to a beat that is, often, a piece of killer soft funk. The production was tight on Picture You Staring, the luminous 2014 album most famed for giving Mac Demarco an excuse to film his testicles. But it’s a generally great record; a hair-swirling mix of bright and sad songs strutting on the fringe of all-out AOR.

Now, with Sugar At The Gate, the muted gloss of their previous material is breathing a bit easier, meaning the band is growing ever more confident in what they can do. But before TOPS hit the headline slot, we have to bob uneasily to Moon Diagrams (a.k.a. the drummer from Deerhunter), who doesn’t really know how to take that just-invented-analogue-synth sound into a place that’s all too enjoyable. The meat of the crowd builds whilst the music just hangs there, sagging, on a formless wall of distortion. It’s a reminder, eventually, of why TOPS are so much fun – they embrace charisma and the delirium of a four-minute pop riff instead of just dicking about with old-skewl keyboards. Ms Penny is the prime example: her voice is husky, assured of heartbreak, yet somehow warm, as if she is pulling her deepest memories of love into the energy of a new friendship, refusing to give a damn anymore as she spins to the chords of co-writer David Carriere.

It’s his playing, too, that always proves a highlight. I was able to catch a word with David at the rear of the standing area, where those universal black railings afford a good lean – he explained that he flitted readily from punk to jazz music in high school, switching from a three-chord thump to spiralling, lick-sharp performances with an intense rhythmic malleability. But he’s more interested in pop music, of the groove and pathos entwined on a song like ‘Change Of Heart’, which comes second in the set and lights a fire in areas of the audience. Throughout, Carriere is at the heart of why TOPS are so danceable, understated, and a joy to anticipate.

He is impressive below the tiptoeing keys of ‘Further’, jabbing the song to contention for the “I just can’t let it go, just can’t let it die” line from Penny, who never gets atomised in the mix. Indeed, her vocals are another strength; they ride above the versus mid-tempo and croon powerfully where they’ll have the best effect, so the evening is saved from too much sentimentalism. ‘Petals’, when it comes, is one of their most effortless takes on white-America funk, and it proves the perfect segue for ‘Way To Be Loved’, left to rattle on into a collective pause before the beat lands heavily.

But when they’re able to stretch the template, there’s an even more interesting dynamic – at their scuzziest, for instance, on ‘Dayglow Bimbo’, where fleet-footed shoegaze rolls over the same instinct for clarity and comes up with something shining, yet remote. It’s an interesting tease for where the band may end up: iridescent, wacked out on summers. And then, during ‘The Hollow Sound Of Morning Chimes’, they get to jam, and it’s pretty great, a Dr. John-meets-Warpaint murkiness that threatens to top their singles for song of the night. And true, there are slower moment that stumble, asking a lot for a few riffs at a sadder pitch they drag on. The group aren’t as good when they’re standing still. TOPS have to keep moving. They deal with heartache better when they’re flying in the face of it. But that, really, is what they’re into – writing a hook for escape; rooms here, like this, joined by those who have felt the eruption of saying goodbye and owning that decision.

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Joshua Potts

Josh is a protruding thumb. He’s a hitchhiker on the freeway of life, fond of deprecation and Radiohead. Nothing frightens so much as ‘nothing’ – that is, sitting back and waiting for the world to slip away unnoticed. He has been writing for several years under a shroud of mercenary journalism, using all sorts of societal excuses to flex his pencil, which doesn’t exist because who uses pencils anymore? No-one creative. Or, if they do, he’ll find them, prepping a coffee shop essay that would make Montague blush with missed chances.He likes Stewart Lee, Stevie Nicks and lampshades. The streets have claimed him as their own at some point, but it’s likely he forgot about it en route to an Aldi for Rubicon and posh hummus. Restlessly, he prowls through the lexicon and says, “This! This here!”, and thinks that’s what life is about: choosing ways to express how beautiful we are, in front of as many minds as we can.