Culture  Ooh, that’s tender

Taking a listen to the debut album from TOPS

Making a name for yourself in the music industry is no small feat, and when you’re based in a city such as ours, with its astonishing artistic diversity, the task is even greater. Establishing a sound, a schedule, and a fan base are all integral components to success, and hundreds of performers fall short in their attempts to achieve all three. Yet one local band might just have all their ducks in a row: the up-and-coming outfit TOPS.

TOPS is a four-piece band made up of Jane Penny, David Carriere, Thom Gillies, and Riley Fleck. They released their debut album, Tender Opposites, on March 1, and are currently touring through the U.S. promoting and playing their new music. No strangers to the Montreal music scene, each band member has been previously involved in other groups, backing up vocalist Sean Savage and combining forces – minus drummer Fleck – in the band Silly Kissers. After the two other members of the band broke off from the project last winter, Penny, Carriere, and Gillies invited Fleck, who was using the same practice space, to join their group, and the rest is (fairly recent) history.

The album itself is unique, balancing laid-back ethereal numbers with more energetic indie jams. Penny’s leading vocals give the tracks an intimate feel, and her range – in terms of both ability and attitude – set the tone for the record. Outside of the standard four-piece instrumentation, the band employs a variety of other musical tools to add depth and complexity to their songs – keyboards, flutes, and synthesizers all make appearances throughout the album.

In the song “VII Babies” – my personal favorite – the chorus gives way to an instrumental breakdown consisting of an inspired flute solo played over an assortment of echoing tones and whistles, giving the number a rather jazzy quality. The drumming is tight throughout the record, and the guitar and bass are smoothly expressive, never taking over the tracks but striking an assertive balance within them. One can envision the band performing in a low-ceilinged smoky club, crooning out subtly reflective music for their listeners (indoor smoking laws notwithstanding).

In an email interview with the band, I talked to them about their debut album, as well as Montreal’s music scene and how it has affected their work. “Amongst the music community we’re a part of,” said Fleck, “it’s more important to create a musical project which is an honest expression of the musicians themselves than hitting the right cultural markers.” This is evident throughout the record. It is not a certain demographic that the group seems to be directing their music toward, but their own set of ideals, treating the album as a space to flex their own creative muscles.

On the subject of interacting with the diversity of sounds found in Montreal, Fleck stated that, “some of us [members of the band] make music which sounds totally different from TOPS, but we all hang out and play with each other and if anything it gives us the confidence to try to make music which doesn’t sound like music that is currently being made by people around us.”

It is this combination of willingness to experiment, while also remaining true to their core values, that will hopefully allow TOPS to carve out a name for themselves in the crowded underground music – scene on both a local and national scale.

“It’s an exciting time for music”, quips Fleck, and Total Opposites certainly proves it.