TOPS – Tender Opposites

written by: March 20, 2012
Release Date: Febrauary 28th, 2012


In an ironically soulless moment at the conclusion of their 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers were taking an elevator to the Cook County Assessor’s Office, to pay off the penguin’s orphanage tax bill, and stood stock still while light Muzak was playing, a rare peaceful moment that director John Landis contrasted with the massive military mobilization underway outside in an effort to capture the fugitive duo “on a mission from God.” TOPS is like being stuck in that elevator, but accompanied by yuppies in leisure suits and chic dresses with shoulder pads and big collars. Regrettably, the band is more Murph & The Magic Tones than the brothers of blues, more Holiday Inn lounge act than grizzled veteran bearers of the Lounge Ax.

Here’s yet another in a seemingly endless parade of groups for whom the nineties never happened, never mind the 21st century, and on their full-length debut, the Montreal quartet TOPS beg the question, at what point does the music of the 1980’s stop being an influence and inflection and start becoming a note for note re-creation?

The single “Turn Your Love Around” starts sounding like a cover of Eric Clapton’s “I Can’t Stand It” performed by Sade fronting The Police but morphs into a Toni Basil shouting match at the conclusion. The nearest modern ancillary might be Los Angeles duo The Bird And The Bee, but there’s not even a nod to true modernity here, and even though the kick-off cut, “Evening” pays a nod to their coy electropop, the B&B have better songs. “Rings of Saturn” starts like the Star Trek theme but devolves into a lush and loungey track that might have fallen on the cutting room floor of Frankie Rose’s Interstellar sessions.  Singer Jane Penny sounds more bored here than anywhere else on the record–  it’s a shame the soft rock arrangements and pacing don’t let her beautiful voice grow and shine more. “Double Vision” borrows the keyboard part from a New Order track, but the pace is so slow and the vocals so lovely and lilting, the only vision issue is keeping one’s eyes open.

By contrast (and it’s not a stark contrast by any means), “Diamond Look” dovetails off of Sade’s “Diamond Life” but sounds more like Sheena Easton singing on it, and it even references Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” A listener could be forgiven for thinking this was a lost Missing Persons single.

TOPS are like a less funky version of Black Kids, a less fun version of Chromeo, and a less rocking version of Pseudoecho. Fellow Montreal exports Stars and Grimes at least have original songs and weirdness going on to add to their palette of eighties sounds– TOPS just sound like a 1980’s tribute act. No matter how much you want to like them, there’s an inescapable feeling that this has all been done before. At the end of the day, as they say in a track that’s remarkably reminiscent of the smooth latter day Fleetwood Mac, it’s hard not to wish that they would just “Go Away.” It’s a shame, as the record is not a bad listen, it’s just too easy on the ears, too retro when there are so many more advantages to looking (and listening) forward.

As essayist Susan Sontag once wrote, about a novel published over one hundred years earlier:

Isn’t every work that speaks to us with an originality and lucidity we’re capable of acknowledging one we want to conscript into what we understand as modernity? Our standards of modernity are a system of flattering illusions, which permit us selectively to colonize the past, as are our ideas of what is provincial, which permit some parts of the world to condescend to all the rest.

But Tender Opposites contains only what was defined as modernity in the 1980’s– it wasn’t an accurate depiction of how the future would be (at least, it isn’t yet), and the way that TOPS selectively “colonizes the past” doesn’t offer anything original or particularly lucid.  As music writer Simon Reynolds wrote in 2011’s Retromania: “It’s like we can’t get past this past. Neophilia turns into necrophilia.” To paraphrase Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog’s number from the original version of “The Muppet Movie,” let’s hope that something better comes along.

Tops – Tender Opposites tracklist:

  1. “Evening”
  2. “Diamond Look”
  3. “VII Babies”
  4. “Double Vision”
  5. “Go Away”
  6. “Turn Your Love Around”
  7. “Rings of Saturn”
  8. “TOPS Theme”