TOPS - Sugar At The Gate

by Nathan Fidler Rating:6 Release Date:2017-06-02

With cover art that will leave you craving Liquorice Allsorts, TOPS return for a third album of dreamy, hazy pop. Picture You Staring, released back in 2014, showed a band an unlikely melodic force in frontwoman Jane Penny, something which gives high hopes for Sugar At The Gate.

Firstly, let's address that voice. How Jane Penny hasn’t been talked about more is a mystery. There isn’t anything quite as earworm worthy as ‘Way To Be Loved’ on this album, but the breathy, sweet vocals are worth getting through this album for. When Penny wants to be enchanting, she can be, when she wants to lean into a harder sound, she can. There isn’t the kind of range you’d find on someone classically trained, but if you’re looking for character, she has it in spades.

‘Petals’ is as close to “peppy” as you’ll get, with lazy, funky guitar chop and Penny’s confession of “Last night on Earth today, I’ll make it worthwhile if you promise to do the same”. While the verse eases on, the chorus doesn’t live long in the memory. Similarly, ‘Cutlass Cruiser’ goes for the hook - this time on the chorus - but lacks drive when it comes to the verse.

The album as a whole is quiet and slow, with the band banking mostly on the mystique and allure of the vocals, resulting in a mixed bag. Closing track ‘Topless’ is a simple echo of a quiet, throaty synth, but it’s worth it for the whisper in your ear of “You and I don’t need to pay for what we want, ‘cause we’ve both got it”.

For the most part, tracks don’t go anywhere. It feels like the band is on holiday, strumming lazily here and there without much character imbued into the music; ‘Hours Between’ and ‘Seconds Erase’ highlight this problem perfectly. It could be that they’ve aimed for the sleepy, dreamlike vibe, but if so, they’ve overshot it.

A shy Kate Bush singing along to an overly relaxed 80s version of Daft Punk - that’s the best way to describe TOPS, which admittedly makes them sound more exciting than they turn out to be. With a more inventive band alongside Jane Penny’s unusually alluring voice and we’d have a very exciting band on our hands.

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