If ever a case could be made that music is informed by the environment it’s created in, Sugar at the Gate by Montreal’s TOPS would be Exhibit A. TOPS’ first two albums carried the cool, detached chill and refined insouciance of their fellow Arbutus Records’ label mates, sounding quintessentially Montreal. The band left the damp, cold winters of Montreal behind and decamped to bright, balmy Southern California to record their third album, Sugar at the Gate, and the resulting music is decidedly more robust, almost bursting with vitamin D.
Like all Canadians however, TOPS takes a little of home with them when travelling and working abroad. “Further” and “Marigold & Gray” crackle with the urban energy of their previous records, but they are both shot through with the warm and relaxed disposition of a SoCal surfer. The soft rock stirrings of “I Just Wanna Make You Real” and staccato rhythms of “Cutlass Cruiser” are better suited to bistros and bars than the beach, but TOPS aren’t afraid to get hot and funky. The slinky new wave bass line on “Petals” sounds a lot like that of The Fixx’s forgotten classic, “One Thing Leads to Another” (from their shoreline referencing 1983 album Reach the Beach).
Regardless of where in the world TOPS venture to make their music, Sugar at the Gate is proof positive that the real influence behind their charming aesthetic is the band itself. Jane Penny has a voice that would sound classic and timeless in any era. Penny’s vocals, paired with the band’s expertly arranged soft-focus pop, has become a hallmark of TOPS’ sound, which gets better with every subsequent release.