TOPS: Moody Blues

TOPS explores the dark side of pop music

Sugar At The Gate, the new record from Montreal’s TOPS, has a bright, spacious sound, but below the surface, there’s a current of uncertainty. “They’re love songs,” says Jane Penny, the band’s lead singer, keyboard player and main lyricist. “But we don’t write about the positive feelings everybody knows. We talk about the ambivalence we experience in relationships but usually don’t acknowledge.”

Songs like “Petals” and “Topless” have a hard-rock edge, but most of the album’s tunes have a more intimate sound, marked by offbeat, ambient touches and unexpected instrumental flourishes. “We listen to a lot of R&B,” Penny says. “Soul records have the most interesting production. The emotions are big, but the instruments are placed separately and discretely in the mix. David (Carriere, the band’s lead guitarist) is a great player, but sees himself more as a songwriter. He likes stretching the limits of his instrument to get the emotional sounds he likes.”

The moody textures Penny and Carriere create, with the help of drummer Riley Fleck, complement the jazz-like passion of Penny’s phrasing. “I never took singing lessons,” she says. “I taught myself. I love Ozzy Osbourne, but I’m not into the over-the-top singing of most female rock vocalists. There are loud women singers I like, but I like singing quietly. I can get more variations with my tone when I’m singing softly. The phrasing isn’t conscious, it’s just how I happen to sing.”

The band’s live sets share the quiet intensity of their albums, although they do put on a compelling performance. “We’re not your typical rock show,” she says. “The songs are all pretty slow, but people enjoy it because we’re not serious performers. We joke around a lot and that helps, since a lot of the songs are kinda slow and sad.”

—j. poet