One could imagine each song off Hop Along’s latest album, Painted Shut, as a string of fictional characters partaking in the same short story collection. The embarrassed ex-girlfriend, the abused kid, the powerful man, the mental patient. All of these situations could remain in an archetypal setting, but they are made personal by singer-songwriter Frances Quinlan’s cathartic, riveting voice, and poignant but precise lyrics. Each song details a rich narrative that rises up from the subconscious to the surface. It has that effect of, “Oh, man, I forgot about that.”
Hop Along’s lyrical content in Painted Shut is more centralized than their previous release, Get Disowned. The veins of anti-folk and untethered pop remain, albeit in a controlled manner. This album was recorded in a short time span, under the direction of producer John Agnello (who recently did Kurt Vile’s Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze, and has recorded the likes of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.). The creation of Painted Shut is a quick time-leap, but seeing as they recently signed to Saddle Creek Records in October 2014, the equipment to record sprung into their laps.
When I first saw Hop Along in July 2014 at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh, I felt like a poser, as I didn’t know all of their songs, and I was surrounded by a loyal crowd of about thirty fans, craning their necks, mouthing every word to “Tibetan Pop Stars.” We all embraced the manic, raucous, and utterly pleasant sounds rolling at us. Hop Along has this effect: you are entranced by Quinlan’s singing, and at the same time, moving to a riveting pace the band creates, an asymmetrical musical jungle. They make more complicated lyrics work in song, similar to a band like At The Drive In’s style.
Take the first track, for instance, called “The Knock.” The opening is pleasant, a fair tempo, jaunty, even. The instrumentation spares out as Quinlan delivers a line, “At the door came a knock,” extending the word knock, with no background harmony. It plays out like a pause or line break in a piece of fiction. Consciously or unconsciously, this type of detail is what separates Hop Along from the sea of punk-tinged bands. Each song is submerged in a similar dystopia. “The Knock” details a peaceful morning being disturbed by a witness to a crime. In a way, it’s a foreshadowing to the societal underbelly touched on throughout the album.
The next tale, “Horseshoe Crabs,” references the life of American folk singer Jackson C. Frank, who was actually born in Buffalo, N.Y. Little known, he recorded with the likes of Paul Simon, and later in his life mental torments took over his personality. Memory is a fragile thing. It’s fluid, changing. The two simple, minor piano chords opening “Horseshoe Crabs” drop us in a nostalgic mindset. Elegant guitar riffs underneath the vocals, screaming, “Staring into the ass crack of dawn / all I found was myself” and “You used to find me pitching horseshoe crabs back into the sun.”
Jackson was also briefly homeless and in a psychiatric hospital at one point in his life, which is also referenced in the song “Sister Cities.” Lines like, “Neither one of you knows/ what the flowers in your hand/ are supposed to mean” and “…this fiend has no family / so he will outlive you and me” touch on a paranoid schizophrenic mental state. What is it like to hope your memory will stay? To lose grip of reality? To wonder what was the right thing to do?
This idea is further explored in the acoustic song “Happy To See Me.” Quietly placed next to the hit single “Waitress,” Quinlan finger picks and strums a set of muted chords. A woman is riding on the train home, watching birds or bats turning into pieces of cut up paper. She is trying to recall how a memory occurred, wanting the collective memory to turn in her favor. “I am hoping/ that I get to be very old/ And when I’m old I’ll only see people from my past / And they all will be happy to see me / We all will remember things the same.” It’s a feeling we all have, we all want, to be remembered in a positive light. We want that utter redemption for the guilt we carry.
Frances made note on the band’s Tumblr about the song “Powerful Man” and its impact:
Hey All, Frances here; today is an exciting and completely terrifying day for me personally, because the song we released today (”Powerful Man” via Fader) is about a very important day in my life. If you’ve ever been called upon to step in on an abusive situation, and been too afraid, I have been there too. Do anything you can. I wish I had. It’s by far my greatest regret. I don’t know what else to say about it, except I am grateful to all the brave and kind people in my life. I hope I am more brave now than I was 10 years ago. “
“Powerful Man” opens up with a pop, crisp melody, vividly bringing to mind an idyllic fall day. To juxtapose the good mood, she sings, “Sun setting on the street / your dad told you not to look at me.” The chorus rings through, as desperate as the vocals are, “He said, she’s not gonna help you.”
Despite the feel-good melodies, the power struggles are littered throughout the album. “Waitress” touches on the story of a, well, waitress, who sees one of her exes friends during a shift. A feeling of utter smallness takes over her, as she must have done something horribly wrong. The paranoia is clear, but heart-wrenching, as she says, “I call you enemy / because I’m afraid of what you could call me.” By far, “Waitress” is one of the most powerful songs on the album. Quinlan’s voice seems to fall away in a rasp, but then shoots back in a dramatic climax, “We’ve long since closed now, still you and some others stick around.”
If I had to guess, I imagine the next time I see Hop Along will be in an audience twice the size, with twice as many dedicated fans. Some may say Hop Along got lucky with Saddle Creek Records, but I say that Painted Shut turns the tables: they got lucky with Hop Along.