I Feel Alive – Montreal-based indie rock band TOPS’ fourth record – is a light, jangly and breezy indie rock album running just over 35 minutes that serves as the perfect backdrop for a springtime walk in the park in any year but 2020.
The album’s first two songs also happen to be the two strongest. Opener ‘Direct Sunlight’ is a gentle soft rock (or dare I say, yacht rock) track with synthesizer jabs pulled directly from the cheesy 80s pop song playbook. The retro sounds of the song are nothing new in the current landscape of indie rock and pop, but what TOPS brings to the table is a level of understanding and mastery of the sound that is rather rare, allowing them to create something that is sincere and respectful to their influences.
The title track is a piece of modern guitar pop reminiscent of Jay Som’s recent efforts, an effortlessly delightful piece of music that is meticulously arranged to feel at once simple and emotionally impactful. When vocalist Jane Penny cries out “I feel alive” at the top of her lungs, one can’t help but believe her.
In fact, the strongest moments of the album come from Penny selling what she is singing well. In ‘Ballad & Sad Movies’ she puts just the right amount of emotion behind her vocals where the listener can picture the song’s protagonist being heartbroken and lonely without it becoming overly sappy.
The main issue with the album comes from its reverb-soaked production, as it turns the songs into a wash of sound with no clear focus. The overuse of reverb effects on Lane’ vocals is the most problematic, as it turns the punchy clear-cut vocals that Penny has shown she is capable of into an incomprehensible mush.
The band pulls off the indie soft rock sound well, but what is lacking in I Feel Alive is a sense of originality. The band clearly owes a massive debt to the Snail Mails, Alvvays and Japanese Breakfasts of the world. Throughout the 11 songs of I Feel Alive, there is little sense that the band has an interest in switching up their sound or doing something exciting. Even with the good execution, the same sound throughout the whole album does get tedious.
The songwriting at its best gives off a sense of simple, almost child-like sincerity and at its worst, teenage angst fueled melodrama. Both things are fine when the singers are emotionally convincing, but when they are not, such as on the track ‘OK Fine Whatever’ (actually they could have been very convincing but there is so much reverb it is hard to tell), it all comes off a bit fake and vapid.
While I Feel Alive is a solid, enjoyable pop record, it unfortunately lacks creativity and could have massively benefited from a different production style.