Montreal’s TOPS has one of the most distinct sounds in modern indie rock. They simultaneously occupies the same guitar driven, vaguely lo-fi skin of artists like Mac DeMarco or Ariel Pink and the tried and true trappings of your parents’ favorite light rock radio station.
This might seem like an odd pairing, but its yielded two terrific records (2012’s Tender Opposites and 2014’s Picture You Staring) and a number of ethereal, soulful singles that blend warm, gooey synths and chugging guitars with ear worm hooks from singer Jane Penny.
Needless to say, TOPS’ music is engineered for an intimate venue, and the quartet had the perfect space in Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. The venue is tall and a bit cavernous, but certainly not deep, ideal for David Carriere’s clean chords and tastefully restrained riffs to carry.
Although bathed in soft purple light and the haze of a few eager fans vaping in the front row, the band’s songs bristled with a welcome bite and an undeniable live energy.
Riley Fleck’s drums hit harder, and Penny’s vocals, which sometimes blend into the instrumental almost too well, were center stage.
The band primarily stuck to Picture You Staring songs, although their records flow so effortlessly into one another that seeing them live is more one holistic experience. What would become monotonous in the hands of lesser songwriters instead is immersive in the hands of TOPS. Four or five songs into their set and you feel transported somewhere timeless.
Of course, there were some particular highs during dreamy performance. Single “Change of Heart” stands out for its juxtaposition of gorgeous, upbeat guitar and direct, emotional lyricism, and Penny’s live performance only highlighted that dichotomy further.
The syrupy “Sleeptalker” glistened in new and exciting ways, while “Circle the Dark,” and its Police-esque guitar had an undeniable sense of urgency.
TOPS rounded out their set with a rousing cover of The Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” before ripping into “Turn Your Love Around” with as much vigor as they could muster. Carriere’s guitar on the breakdown was particularly spellbinding, and as the organized chaos of the outré wound down it was clear that the band was leaving the audience somewhere different than where they’d started.
There were a couple of notable absences from the setlist, including “She’s So Bad” and “Way to be Loved,” but ultimately TOPS’ show is so engrossing that no individual song’s absence is that glaring.
Despite just having added bassist Alana Marta DeVito, TOPS’ chemistry is a thing to behold. You’ll want to catch them in these kinds of close quarters before the band graduates to roomier accommodations, which is an inevitability if they keep producing and performing music at this level.