Album Review: Jane Penny – Surfacing EP

[Luminelle; 2024]

Jane Penny has been a core member of Montreal’s TOPS for over a decade, and her solo debut has been a long time coming. Work on the Surfacing EP started as early as 2018, and took shape in 2020 when the singer moved to Berlin. Living in isolation with Adam Byczkowski, who records for Arbutus under the pseudonym Better Person, she found both intimacy and separation from the outside world. The move to Europe didn’t last, but the necessity of working away from TOPS got the wheels of a solo project turning.

Not one to shy away from her pop influences, the title Surfacing is likely a reference to Canadian soft-pop icon Sarah McLachlan’s 1997 album of the same name. In that sense, it’s a double entendre, also carrying with it the more literal meaning of Jane’s solo music finally surfacing after years of development. And it has truly been years – in the time since Jane started to work on these songs, TOPS released both I Feel Alive (2020) and the Empty Seats EP (2022). TOPS member Marci released her self-titled solo debut in 2022, which Jane also worked on.

This long timeline ending with just a 21-minute EP is a bit strange, especially considering several of these tracks could be TOPS songs. But some individuality shines through here. Penny recently mentioned her love of synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani to Paste, and she explores deep synth textures on the opener “Darkness Can Wait For a Night” and the instrumental “Stream”. 

The rest of Surfacing is fairly straightforward pop. “Wear You Out”, with its superb instrumentation (Penny is an excellent flute player) and straight-up sexy video, is a highlight. Elsewhere, “Artificial Genuine” finds Jane’s vocals at their most sensual. The way she stretches out her vocals reminds me of what made her so spellbinding at the two TOPS shows I saw in the past couple years: she has a great range and she gives it her all. This is a fantastic song.

Whereas Marci gave fellow TOPS member Marci the chance to switch things up by singing lead, Surfacing is not so unique in the TCU (that’s the TOPS Cinematic Universe if you’re following along). Again, the best songs here could be TOPS songs, and this EP only gives you so much of Jane Penny as a separate entity. Hopefully in the (near!) future we can get another TOPS project as well as a Jane full-length that follows the threads of individuality only glimpsed here. But for any and all gripes, I have to hand it to her, the Penny/TOPS sound is just addictive. I feel just like the chorus of “Artificial Genuine” that has been reverberating in my head for weeks:

And I can’t get enough
Of what youuu bring