Lingering on Hop Along’s Ragged Precision

Our music reviews seek to trace the narratives that weave between songs and albums. Check out our Rhythmic Fiction tag for other stories told through music.

I stumbled upon a small rock band from Philly by total accident. One of Hop Along’s newest songs came up on auto-play in a video I had been listening to. The streaming service started playing a Hop Along song right I was about to close the window. Upon hearing a distorted guitar effect, I decided to give this unknown song a listen. A few hours later, I had ordered two copies of Hop Along’s newest album, Painted Shut, for myself and a friend. (The friend had asked me to burn the CD for him, but I prefer to give my money to smaller bands than rip their music. They’ve earned it.)

This is not the first time I have found new music by happy accident, and damn, with the streak I’m on, I hope it’s not the last.

“I never once seen a teenager look so radiant”

“The Knock” opens with a peppy yet effortless tune and bass rift to match the drums. What is immediately apparent is that lead vocalist Frances Quinlan has a voice unlike most others. She can carry a sweet note like a bell before raising it to a breathy falsetto, and then forcing it into a scratchy almost-whine.

The lyrics are simple, but do not tell a simplistic story. Listening to Quinlan sing gives the impression that there is much more left unsaid: “You said ‘Why did you get so sentimental over them?’ / I wasn’t it’s just it’s been a long time since / I was moved to crying.”

It’s hard to pin down what is so appealing about Hop Along’s music. The melodies and rhythms flow freely through the speakers without dominating the airspace. Their songs are ever present, but not overwhelming in either their energy or their complexity. Painted Shut is the perfect driving album, taking the mind away into relatable stories without being distracting.

“We all will remember things the same”

“Buddy in the Parade” discusses things left behind, while “Horseshoe Crab” feels reminiscent. Again, more seems to be left unsaid, but that is part of what makes Quinlan’s lyrics so interesting. If this album is an onion, I feel like I’m just starting to peel back the outer rind, even after a couple dozen listens.

The music is even-keeled, but always moving. The four-piece group seems to have an innate understanding with each other, and Quinlan’s lyrics flow easily over the garage-band feel of the composition.

The album picks up again with “Waitress” in which Quinlan sees a woman come into her restaurant, and worries she will be recognized. She fears the woman would know what Quinlan did — supposedly to betray her. And then Quinlan has to wait out the table as they stay late into the night, all the while dreading that the woman will recognize her.

“The 6am cold sun leaves me waiting on the threat of someone”

My favorite song on the album is “Texas Funeral”, which opens as a splashy, upbeat piece, marching with purpose and ease. The song takes an intriguing turn after the third refrain as the rhythm breaks down and builds right back in head-nodding section punctuated by Quinlan defiantly declaring, “None of this is gonna happen to me”. The song carries on through a fluid guitar solo and slips right back into a short verse-refrain, demonstrating how easily the vocals and instrumentals move between emotional waves, never quite catching a single one.

Precision drumming punctuates the ragged voice of Frances Quinlan. In fact, most of Hop Along’s music is laced with this ragged precision. Ringing cymbals, feedback-laden guitars, and Quilan’s lingering voice veil the playful harmonies and sharp rhythmic timing of their songs.

While Hop Along’s airy yet deliberate style is apparent throughout the album, the variety of their songs leaves some surprise, as in “I Saw My Twin”, which opens like a soft acoustic bopper before being driven into a forceful swirl of crashes and strumming.

This song also exemplifies the broken structure of the lyrics, as sentences and clauses flow over and between measures in free poetic form, leaving the listener straining to understand the words while breathing in the emotion with each slurred syllable.

I
saw my twin
working in a
waffle house
the
first birds of
morning
cackled from the
graveyard

“I wanted to leave but here I am again”

Another example of lyrical mastery comes in “Well Dressed,” a slow-burning acoustic ballad about leaving without ever really getting anywhere. The symbolism of the verse — being swallowed by the city — adds a sharp sting to the song before the drums kick in to chug the song toward an inexorable denouement:

When I was alive
I lived despite
the law now the law has
buried me many, many
times it’s built a
freeway all around my
bed I saw it once
open its great mouth
wide
but
it was so full of afflicted
houses and buildings
I can’t remember what it was
saying

Ha ha ha ha ha goes
the train

“Sister Cities” sounds like a happier note on which to end the album, but even here the acceptance of fate is present: “Outside, the old dog, resigned / Leaves heavy tracks / For the father dragging the rifle to find”.

“Every other day the same long road to the old man down the street”

That sense of movement without tangible progress is recurring in this album. The lyrics speak of change — the desire to change — but always appear resigned to their fate. The music varies greatly between and within songs, but the ragged precision of the rhythm section carries the frothy looseness of the vocals and backing harmonies. The best part about this album is the way it lingers, carrying you away into its ether of spiraling emotional tones and rhythms.

Steve D

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