I truly believe in my heart of hearts that Frances Quinlan is a national treasure. Every time I see her perform I feel like I’m watching the kind of show that I’d want to tell my great- great- great-grandchildren about, even when the show is a 30-minute set at the tail-end of a SXSW showcase. Hop Along performed at Austin’s Barracuda last night and were billed dead last, which is usually supposed to be a mark of honor, seeing as how they effectively “headlined” the bill. Unfortunately, at SXSW many people are too twisted and tired to make it through a 1 AM set, and a crowd that was thick for the much-hyped UK band Shame had dispersed by the time Hop Along took the stage. Sucks for them because Hop Along are probably one of the most polished acts they would’ve seen at SX, a festival dominated by young bands who are still trying to figure out how to perform for a crowd. Hop Along don’t have that problem — they’ve been in the game a long time.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog is Hop Along’s forthcoming full-length, their third album as a band and fourth if you count Quinlan’s solo release that came out before she started recording with a group. Last night’s set opened with the album’s lead single, “How Simple,” a song that manages to be about both falling in love and breaking up at the same time. “Don’t worry, we will both find out just not together,” the chorus goes. It perfectly encapsulates Quinlan’s greatest qualities as a lyricist; she prefers to keep things nuanced, open, and up for interpretation. Some people look to music when they’re seeking an answer or an antidote to an indescribable feeling. Quinlan’s songs don’t really provide that. They’re confused and messy and they sound like what it feels like to be an actual human person who doesn’t have all the answers.
And then there’s That Voice, which is one of the most unique and unforgettable in music. It’s basically indescribable, but I’ll try: It sounds like a gravelly rasp that got run over and then dipped in honey or something. Quinlan’s singing voice is so imperfect that it is perfect. Hop Along played mostly new songs, including their most recent single “Not Abel,” but when they broke out “Waitress” off their last album, Painted Shut, Quinlan did that thing she does where her voice climbs to an impossible high before hitting the lowest low on the chorus. It’s a song that really shows off the rest of the band’s creativity, too, with its rhythmic and off-kilter instrumental hook. I named that song one of my favorites of the year when it came out in 2015, and it remains one of my favorite songs of all-time. There is something about that hook that is so good it’s kind of upsetting, like a high you know you won’t find anywhere else.
Hours before I watched Hop Along perform, I ate a breakfast taco a table away from them on the East Side. It took me a really long time to figure out that I was sitting next to the band, and when I did I felt the kind of anxiety you feel when you’re in the presence of someone you really admire. It was silly, really, because Quinlan and the rest of the crew looked like any other group of friends eating tacos on a beautiful day in Austin, Texas. When they got on that stage, though, they proved themselves to be the greatest of the greats.