TOPS - Picture You Staring

While TOPS’ neo-disco overtones manage to rescue Jane Penny’s threadlike upper-octave hush, frequent stretches of undertone strand.

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ALBUM: Picture You Staring




In the video for “Way to Be Loved,” a dancehall is saturated in red, young fashionable Canadians dance to music (choreography too fast for the backing track as if on methamphetamines), and friend Mac DeMarco tries out a new party trick: his scrotum zipped in the fly of his pants, There’s-Something-About-Mary style. The video feels incongruous with the song, too balmy and erratic, but it does manage to visually convey the kind of revivalist gestures TOPS telegraphs with its myriad textures and tones over the course of Picture You Staring. There is one series of portraits in the video, though—an ensemble of seriously forlorn women—that removes the husk of irreverence to show what this album is about: a state of dejection with a noir aesthetic.

David Carriere’s clean-toned chicken-scratched high-flange guitar manifests in an array of rhythms. With the exception of “Change of Heart,” a straightforward synthpop song with eighth note guitar, Picture You Staring’s juke-you guitar is omnipresent, undulating as synth pads alternately complement and obtrude. When Jane Penny’s voice and TOPS’ ambiance work in tandem, it can feel like Ruth Radelet commanding a Chromatics album. Often, though, the sonics are flimsy, and too much is expected of Penny’s voice—airy and in an upper octave—as slivers of synthesizer splash over her lyrics. Occasional instances of analog electroacoustic keyboards and marimba effects afford slight redemption, but even then, the bass often fails to define the song’s lower range.

Picture You Staring’s speaker is vigilant, transforming throughout the nocturnal course from jilted insomniac to meditative sentry. This is a bedroom sit-in. Tracks five and six are an implicit couplet (“All the People Sleep” and “Sleeptalker”), as are eleven and twelve, “Driverless Passenger” and “Destination. By these late tracks, TOPS aspires to Beach House dream pop with somber electronic mesmerisim. They are renovations of the already established palette of Picture You Staring, not reinventions.

Following 2012’s Tender Opposites, TOPS has managed to sophisticate its sound with neo-disco undertones, but sometimes at the expense of enervating its listeners. While Tender was released before the current boom of Montreal indie, Picture You Staring may crumble—just a bit—the plaster around TOPS’ station within the Québécois pantheon.

“Outside in the middle of the street / you look at me as if you know what it’s like / in the shadow of the streetlight”

1. Way to Be Loved
Opening with rapid sticks on muffled cowbell and carbonated synth, this track quickly transitions into a swank pop song with layers of crisp jazzy guitar riffage. Penny’s quietude, found here and throughout the album, contrasts exquisitely with the robust guitar (elsewhere, problematically as thin as Penny’s voice). Penny interrogates a vexed interrogation of a woman (maybe a self-interrogation), asking, “Is that the way that you are / wear you hair down alone / tie it up when he’s there / and tell me that nothing’s wrong?” The album’s eponymous moment, a still life image of the woman in question “staring out the window, not caring.” The man who has spurned her is referred to as a “funny guy,” a “cartoon,” which is the only shred of characterization offered for the men of Picture You Staring, an otherwise nondescript lot on the other tracks. The whimsical imagery (“lacing up her shoes”) in tandem with the flaxen 70s glitz crystallizes this as one of TOPS’ tops.9.6
2. Blind Faze
“Blind Faze” begins as if it will be a synthed-out ballad, though it is clearly too early for one of those. It thankfully accelerates with a dash of jazz, and Jane Penny recalibrates with the up-tempo pop song. The chorus features imbalanced mixing. The clean guitar tones are mixed way up, making Penny’s already soft voice sound even more so. It’s a pop song on a tight schedule, following a regimen of verse-bridge-chorus, verse-bridge-chorus. The jazz guitar and synth finally unite, foregoing the pass-off tact, and the track closes with a pull-off plink.7.3
3. Circle the Dark
Among the things I imagine TOPS talking about with Mac DeMarco, before or after he zipped his testicles into his jeans for their “Way to Be Loved” video is how exactly he produces the high-flange crisp guitar timbre on Salad Days. “Circle the Dark” showcases that timbre playing at a riff akin to the one in The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.” This track’s simple textures drain over minor synth notes while the chorus repeats and repeats. Despite Penny’s measure-end peppy pulsars, the songs offers its listeners malaise.6.1
4. Outside
Whereas “Blind Faze” merely threatens to be a pop ballad (a balk that evolves into up-tempo pop), “Outside” is just that. It is a slow-developing track, repetitive but memorable, a melodious mantra that gets harmonic treatment (perhaps two Pennys dueting?): “Outside in the middle of the street / you look at me as if you know what it’s like / in the shadow of the streetlight / in the shadow of the streetlight.” Highlights include a detuned bass joisting chorus and verse with a rolling yawn and languorous high-pitched five-note swells that conclude the otherwise momentumless track. The song discontinues without ballad bigness.7.9
5. All the People Sleep
As with the Chromatics’ Night Drive, TOPS are imposing the veneer of night over Picture You Staring. In “Outside,” the speaker is under the streetlights near curfew. Now, in this lethargic song, the people have gone to bed. (Stay tuned for the next track, “Sleeptalker.”) Penny’s listless hushed falsetto comes from a larynx that seems to be coated with NyQuil. Her voice, limited in its uppermost octave, unsuccessfully explores the margins of melody. The more interesting elements of this song include the subtle tempo shift and power chord slides.4.8
6. Sleeptalker
Jane Penny becomes a whispering bedfellow, hush so as to paradoxically address but not wake her sleeping partner. Penny’s voice is good-natured and alluring as she somehow manages to prolong the ‘h’ in “hold” as if it is its own syllable. With the simple and addicting guitar riff in a two minute, twenty-four second loop, the fleet song is uncanny, calling to mind Nancy Sinatra’s cover of “Bang Bang” or Cass McCombs’ “Dreams Come True Girl.” As Penny overlooks her lover in delta-wave somniloquy, she speaks back: “Sleepwalker / moon talker: / tell me when you’re dreaming.” In the second verse, though, her lover is a “cheap talker,” and the resentment resonates as the listener hovers above the pillow. 9.7
7. Superstition Future
Beginning with a chunky series of rhythmically unpredictable guitar, synth swirls more reliably interspersed, “Superstition Future” is one of Picture You Staring’s more balanced tracks. The chunky guitar is later blended with reverbed guitar, filling the sonic palette while a lot of the tracks herein hesitate to be so dynamic. The fuller sound allows for Penny’s gossamer vocals to float above the track rather than compete within the sparseness. As she sings, “left with my only heart,” her voice quivers with impressive control. The late synth swirls are more pronounced by the song’s end, an earned accompaniment.7.8
8. 2 Shy
While it is tonally similar to the last track, “2 Shy” features more kinetic guitar. Penny isn’t as rushed as the guitar, though, as she delivers her lyrics one syllable per measure. The guitar fades to allow the chorus to sync with her. The interlude has the same velocity as the chorus, but it’s groovier. This song succumbs to the same formulae seen throughout the album, synth carrying the middle eight, and while it works alright for individual songs, by “2 Shy” the predictability irritates. Penny’s vocal range is again tested on the third verse as a couple of the higher notes break.7.1
9. Change of Heart
Opening with refreshing 80s drum beat, a side step in the right direction after a homogeneous stretch of jazz and pop, “Change of Heart” also includes a Carriere’s voice. Because Penny’s voice is so faint, Carriere figures nearly as a duet and not as the backing vocal it’s supposed to be. Even the keys transition on “Change of Heart,” a marimba effect. Notwithstanding the odd slow-tempo keys solo that feels more like the song is shutting down rather than leading to a repeat of an identical chorus, this track introduces variety from experimentation with the existing palette rather than hairpinning in a new direction.8.4
10. Easier Said
“Easier Said” is a bass-driven track with futuristic trancelike repetition of the mantra “easier said than done”. Penny is emboldened on this track, more sultry than on the previous nine songs. This intimate track showcases her falsetto at its most pure (“why-hi-hi-hi-hi I gotta let you go”). Excepting this chorus, though, the song feels cobbled together. It’s one of only two songs that extends beyond the four-minute mark, the other being the excellent album opener “Way to Be Loved.” This one, though, at five minutes and three seconds feels gratuitous, much of its middle section superfluity. It winds down with a few pings and drum calanda, slower and quieter until it disappears.6.4
11. Driverless Passenger
With the forlornness of Victoria Legrand of Beach House, Penny sings to a single roving guitar: “I need you / don’t tell me / say it’s not so.” By now, Picture You Staring is a lyrical vacuum, little left to explore aside from sonics. In what is surely TOPS’ most melancholic song, Penny’s voice is treated in reverb, and she is transported to a large room with tall ceilings. Here, the synths crashes into the well-defined contours of the song, wavelike. Aside from a confusing synth coda that fails to effectively wrap up a song existing on the fringes of PYS’s range, “Driverless Passenger” is a heartbreaking and captivating song, a good companion for Lykke Li’s “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.”7.7
12. Destination
With Penny still reverbed and whispery, “Destination” offers complementary bursts of electronica. It is unique in its rhythmic key-driven approach. The lo-fi pulse of the low-active marimba keys is calm and mesmerizing, and as with the last song, “Destination” attains intimacy. The song puts a lens on an abandoned speaker, and by the second iteration of “didn’t have to go, didn’t have to go away,” it’s clear that the listener is the cameraman, walking backwards, losing sight of her.8.5
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.

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