The first thing you’ll notice about Hop Along is Frances Quinlan’s voice. It’s an evocative thing, scratchy and muscular and resistant in all the right places. It’s capable of soaring at intense heights and burrowing into gritty lows. You can almost hear the blood gurgling in the back of her throat as she strains to get every word out. Next, you’ll start to take in the sonic world that Quinlan and the band — made up of her brother Mark on drums, guitarist Joe Reinhart, and bassist Tyler Long — have spent almost a decade tirelessly perfecting. It’s a landscape pocked by deep chasms, with barbed-wire mountains and grubby plains. Hop Along feel timeless and insular — when Quinlan wails, “The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing,” during the climax of “Waitress,” you can feel the walls closing in.
They go straight for the jugular — all of the songs on new album Painted Shut build up, layer upon layer upon layer, adding things gradually until they explode in a fiery passion. You’d think the ebb-and-flow of their tracks would grate after an album full of tumultuous rises and falls, but the band tempers the constantly mounting tension with a perfectionist’s attention to detail. With the help of co-producer John Agnello — who has also worked with Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth — they focus on the nuances. New things are still popping out at me in these tracks. Little riffs hide in the background, peeking out only occasionally; drums scatter off into the distance only to return with a raucous fury. These are all carefully constructed, toiled-over songs, and that effort shows in every heavy, ambling step.
Quinlan’s lyrics are something to behold: She writes universal story-songs, painting vivid pictures of broadly sketched American archetypes that still manage to feel pointed in specificity. There’s a line in the middle of “Happy To See Me,” which may well be my favorite track on the album, that destroys me every time. It’s the quietest song on the record, with only Quinlan and her guitar for support, and she recounts: “Father gets up at 4AM to post a motivational video on Youtube again: ‘People of the world, nobody loves you half as much as I am trying to.'” That mantra revels in its corniness, as her voice travels up to a preacher’s heights, but it could serve as a nice through-line to the album. Quinlan sells it with such conviction that you can’t help but believe — she’s used to trying twice as hard to get half as much.
That gentle song is followed up by a track called “Texas Funeral,” one of the loudest songs on the whole album. It’s a eulogy of sorts, to a future that seems impossible, and to an ending that is so far in the distance that you may as well not even consider it an option. As always, the song is grounded with small personal details — “Remember seeing Shirley dancing in the oil fountain?” Quinlan asks the audience, knowing they don’t know the answer — while tackling the big subjects with boldness: “We have a great wanting in common, but none of this is gonna happen to me within my lifetime,” she ends on a hopeless note.
Painted Shut is an album of wild extremes, marked by a dusty Americana that feels familiar and deeply personal. You can imagine it filling up a stadium or the smallest of rooms, and occupying every corner just the same. It’s a marvelous piece of work, one of the best albums of the year so far. You can listen to “Texas Funeral” for the first time below, and read our Q&A with Frances and Mark Quinlan.
STEREOGUM: How did you approach writing the new album differently than the last one?
FRANCES QUINLAN: We wrote this one a lot more as a group. We’ve always kind of worked in a way where I bring something to the band, and then we arrange it as a group. For this one, those things happened a lot more on top of each other. I’d have something and then we’d immediately start shaping it because the band is finally a fully formed entity, so we could just work on things a lot more together. We didn’t demo at all for our last album. We just wrote in the studio, which we couldn’t really do this time. There’s some songs on this one where there are three different versions of it in demo form, and then we’d finally go into the studio. And even after having demoed everything, they still changed.
STEREOGUM: How did you go from the bare bones of a track and flesh it out into something that sounds more like what it does on the album?
FRANCES: I mean, I think that’s just something that happens with us playing it over and over.
MARK QUINLAN: Yeah, a lot of it is about trying to preserve the first impression you get of the melody that Franc will give you, and then serve that. But on a lot of these songs … my first impression or someone else’s first impression totally got scrapped, and it just became this thing of building upon pieces that came gradually. So Franc would write a cool melody, and Joe [Reinhart, their guitarist] would write this other melody that we felt more rhythmically attached to, and it would change.
STEREOGUM: So you have all of these different pieces, and all of these songs are so densely layered. How do you come to a cohesive sound while balancing all of these different elements without overpowering the song itself?
FRANCES: I don’t know. [laughs] We’re still figuring that out. The thing about our band is that everyone’s tastes are so varied that there are never really plans as to how a song is going to end up. One day, you’re looking at it after many sessions of removing a part completely, adding another part, shortening the song, adding a chorus again … Almost all of these songs we pretty much tore apart except for a couple, and even those changed too.
MARK: And since everyone’s taste is really diverse, it’s important to be diplomatic about it. Not just like, “I want to do this thing,” and everyone letting you do it. For instance, everyone else going, “You know, I think this part would be good if you played like this,” and then actually giving it a try and fitting it in. That diplomacy is what I think made the record sound so unique.
STEREOGUM: What do you think was the hardest track to put together?
FRANCES: For me, the hardest was “I Saw My Twin.” I had the hardest time with that song. My voice is very … kind of in-your-face, and I was having a hard time making it work. But every song for me is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Almost painful.
STEREOGUM: What did you look to for inspiration?
FRANCES: On this record, things came from all over the place. I saw this movie with Paul Newman called Hud, and that’s a big part of “Texas Funeral.” I read [Günter Grass’] The Tin Drum. I listen to Dylan all of the time. Highway 61 was the first album I ever heard, and that was just like a painting to me. It was all images flashing by, and I was so taken by that. I love when people can write a song that’s so visual.
STEREOGUM: I think you do that pretty well yourself. Who did you record the album with?
FRANCES: John Agnello produced it with us at Headroom, which is Joe’s space in Philly.
STEREOGUM: What was it like putting it together after working so hard on the demos and doing so much legwork compared to before? What was the atmosphere in the studio like?
FRANCES: We still had to squeeze in every last bit of time that we had in the studio. I think that’s what making a record is like — you have to max out all of your time while you’re making it because it’s you. It’s you at your absolute most realized. Every record a person makes is a part of their life. So when we went in there, we were working from 10AM to midnight, and toward the end we were staying up later. But it was great to have John there because he was really good at saying, “I think we got it, let’s move on.” It’s harder to say that to yourself, so that was really good to have him there for the bigger picture.
STEREOGUM: You made the jump to Saddle Creek for this record — what was that like?
FRANCES: We had to sign something. I had never signed something in regard to my music in my life, so that was pretty real. But we’ve been a band for a long time, and have been doing this for almost 10 years. I feel fortunate that we’re all around 30 and finally just having this stuff happen, because if we were all 18, I think it would have gone south.
STEREOGUM: Do you think there’s a benefit to being a little older, and not having all of this pressure on you to put out this major thing?
FRANCES: Yeah. I mean, the pressure is still there, but it’s not as much as I think it would be if we were even younger.
MARK: All of our experiences equipped us with a lot more of the right tools to make decisions with our art at this point.
FRANCES: Yeah, I think we’d be making music no matter what. At this point, it’s just really nice that this is happening, and we’re grateful. But I think that when I was 18, I felt like I needed to have a label to do all the things I wanted to, and then I did all the things I wanted to without a label. Touring and recording, and then we formed the band and we made another record. Experience makes you realize more and more your own strength and power. And I’m really glad that we have a sense of our own power.
STEREOGUM: Philly seems like such a great breeding ground for bands to grow — how much do you think coming up in the Philly scene helped you to get where you are now?
FRANCES: For me, it’s half-and-half. I started the project in Baltimore, which meant a lot to me — playing house shows and recording myself at that time in my life was pretty huge for me. Philly is also a big part of that. But it’s been such a long time and there are so many elements that it’s hard to attribute it to one thing, but it’s really great to have such a supportive community here. And the fact that Philly is a city that you can afford to live in and make the work that you want to make — I think that’s why people are doing that right now.
STEREOGUM: Who did the album artwork?
FRANCES: That was me.
STEREOGUM: I really like it — what’s the meaning behind it?
FRANCES: Oh, thank you. Last year, I was doing a lot of ink drawings of still-lifes of fruit. And I was thinking a lot about excess, being able to not have something — that’s got to do with a lot of the songs on the album. The idea of this inedible mountain of fruit, while the birds in the background make it look huge. I like that idea of something so massive that’s supposed to be enticing, but it just isn’t. There’s like an onion and a peach, and it’s huge and blue. Blue is a really unappetizing color to me.
STEREOGUM: Drawing off of that, what do you think the album as a whole is about to you thematically?
FRANCES: I think it’s about power and lack thereof. I think it’s about powerlessness, I would say. Because I don’t think there’s a single person that isn’t humbled in that album. There’s something about success, the pursuit of success. That’s another part of the record, for sure. When it just goes bad. There’s this all-or-nothing thing with American aspirations. There are so many unreasonable aspirations in a way. And some of them are perfectly reasonable, but people are just smashed to bits. I really didn’t want the album to be about middle-class people. I really didn’t want it to be about being from the suburbs, because I don’t have any interest in indulging that. I wanted to talk about mental illness, I wanted to talk about poverty and religion and things that I think anybody could use.
[Photo by Shervin Lainez.]