Published Mar 31, 2020To listen to TOPS' discography — from 2012 debut Tender Opposites to their sparkling fourth record I Feel Alive — is to hear a band settle into a sound. The Montreal quartet have been honing their winking vintage pop for nearly a decade, and their latest feels like the inevitable arrival — it's cleaner, brighter and catchier than most anything in their back catalogue.
The fuzz that coated 2017's gently corroded Sugar at the Gate has been scrubbed away — every surface on I Feel Alive shines, tossing light across the room. The band lean further into their throwback soft-rock sound, committing fully to the spell cast by Jane Penny's warmly nostalgic soprano. There's nothing here as strange as grimy Sugar at the Gate highlight "Topless" — I Feel Alive plays like an attempt to deconstruct Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy" and build a record from the pieces, all liquid glimmer and wistful yearning. The Fleetwood Mac association comes through more clearly than on any of their previous records — a dog barks throughout "Drowning in Paradise" à la "Tusk," while the chimes that introduce closer "Too Much" are straight out of "Everywhere."
It's a playful record, crafted from a decidedly summery palette and a commitment to the sugar-rush of solid pop-craft. Lyrically, it's traditional TOPS fare — Penny and guitarist David Carriere tend to mine classic pop narratives, keeping things teasingly romantic and giddily love-struck. The familiarity of the lyrics fits well with their newly clarified sound, though it would be a refreshing change of pace should the band decide to say something more, to spike the '70s prom punch with a little danger.
Unsurprisingly, the mood becomes somewhat repetitive, though it's more a testament to the record's consistent prettiness than a lack of memorable hooks. The title track in particular begs to be replayed — simply constructed compared to the rest of the record's lush layers, it's a perfected piece of pop rock. TOPS have managed to distill their sound to its essence, and I Feel Alive feels like the best representation of the softer side of their music. It's a pleasurable, sun-drenched record — the work of a band who've found their voice, louder and clearer than before. (Independent)