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”