In 2005, Frances Quinlan put out her first album under the name Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. She recorded it in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at the Maryland Institute College Of Art — hence its title, Freshman Year — and she handed it out on CD-Rs at the house shows she played. Inspired by the burgeoning freak-folk movement at the time, the music she made was wordy and jittery and often sounded exactly like it was coming from a college freshman, but even then Quinlan’s knack for surrealist imagery and emotionally fraught songwriting showed great promise.
She’d drop the Queen Ansleis from the name soon after and build out a full band as Hop Along. They would go on to release three albums of perfectly calibrated rock music before Quinlan had the urge to return to something that was all her own. Likewise is the first album she’s put out under her own name. With 15 years separating her from her last solo project, it stands as a document of how far Quinlan has come as a writer, musician, and person. Those nerves and anxieties that plagued her during Freshman Year have given way to new worries, which in turn have morphed themselves into patient, open-world rambles about how we can better love one another.
With Likewise, Quinlan has taken everything she learned from leading a rock band and applied it to creating more dynamic compositions, songs that burble and bounce. The sound isn’t too far of a leap from Hop Along’s most recent full-length, Bark Your Head Off, Dog — Quinlan didn’t travel too far from home, and recorded Likewise with her Hop Along bandmate Joe Reinhart — and that means intricate songs with light textures. Her own music never gets as heavy as Hop Along does, and being on her own lets Quinlan put her distinctive voice into some wildly different contexts: There’s a dancey wiggle on “Now That I’m Back,” jangly weightlessness on “Your Reply,” a rubbery taut cover of Built To Spill’s “Carry The Zero” that closes the album. The arrangements all serve Quinlan’s magnificent songwriting, which is given center stage to sweep you off to wherever it may.
Likewise is an album about reciprocity. Quinlan desires honesty and transparency in her relationships with other people, and she spends Likewise exploring what it means to forge a connection with someone while maintaining your own interiority. “I know there is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody,” she sings on “Rare Thing,” emboldened by being at a loss for words, something that clearly doesn’t come easy for the hyper-literate Quinlan.
She has a way of singing in stories, piecing together fragments of a larger narrative that’s impossible to see the full scale of. “Went To LA” is her most striking example of this on Likewise, built around an affecting chorus of “Heaven is a second chance.” But that simple sentiment is surrounded by some of her most poetic images: a cannibal dragging his son into the kitchen, a deaf man fleeing a barn. “I went to LA together with my maid,” she sings. “She was awful quiet, her hands were shaking in the donkey’s mane.”
Most of her songs operate in a kind of dream logic, jumping from scene to scene with the tension of never knowing quite where they’ll go next. Take the album’s opening track, “Piltdown Man,” which is named after a hoax about a missing link that knocked anthropological research out of whack for decades. “Why would he do such a thing?” Quinlan asks in its opening lines. “Of course, what a stupid question.”
She’s not surprised by the hubris of lying. Who would be? But then she changes gears, moves to a scene from a childhood sleepover that got too raucous. “6AM, so loud your mom had to kick us out/ We ran the wheelbarrow around and around/ Think of the sound,” she sings, her voice straining to restrain itself. Quinlan places all of this in an odd context: the squeaks and echoey murmurs of a basketball court filter in and out of the song. Hell if I know what Quinlan actually meant by all this, but it makes me think of lying as a kid and how you can never conceive of the consequences of your own actions at such a young age. But still the world sets you up to fib anyway, to distance yourself further and further from the truth. “I still think of a template, if there is one,” she wonders.
Quinlan’s songs are often impressionistic like this, much like the wonderful paintings that have graced all of Hop Along’s releases and extend to the self-portrait on Likewise in which Quinlan depicts herself with an inscrutable expression, somewhere between tentative and stoic. I’ve always been struck by Quinlan’s visual art and how acutely it matches the music she creates. Her songs never cleanly elucidate their ideas, but she builds in enough oddly phrased hooks that suggest if we mull them over long enough they might start to make sense. One of my favorites comes on “Your Reply”: “According to John/ Fear softens into doubt,” she sings. “To what do I cling and think is mine?” It’s an unconventional turn of phrase, but I can’t stop thinking about it, turning it over in my head until hopefully one day it’ll unlock. Quinlan’s music is well worth that effort.
Likewise is out 1/31 via Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Destroyer’s dark and catchy Have We Met.
• Dan Deacon’s New Age glimmer Mystic Familiar.
• Lil Wayne’s as-yet-heard new album Funeral. (Not an Arcade Fire cover album, probably.)
• Torres’ tender yeehaw Silver Tongue.
• Artist To Watch Squirrel Flower’s distorted and warm I Was Born Swimming.
• Drive-By Truckers’ erudite and mad The Unraveling.
• Poliça’s skitteringly smooth When We Stay Alive.
• Squarepusher’s adrenaline-racing Be Up A Hello.
• Tha God Fahim’s hardnosed Lost Kingz.
• Ben Watt’s harmonious Storm Damage.
• Isobel Campbell’s first album in 13 years There Is No Other.
• Kesha’s page-turning High Road.
• Meghan Trainor’s Treat Myself.
• Louis Tomlinson’s Walls.
• The benefit compilation Let The Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1 featuring Jenny Lewis, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Wilson, and more.
• The Outburst covers compilation Hot Shit Attitude.
• SQÜRL’s documentary score Some Music For Robby Müller.
• Rafiq Bhatia’s Standards Vol. 1 EP.