by Chad Jewett
Francis Quinlan’s voice is a riveting, elastic instrument. Like Joni Mitchell, she can wing her way up to sudden falsettos; like Frank Black circa-Doolittle, she’s able to turn rasp and bite into pop ingredients. It’s the vibrant flexibility of her melodies that makes Quinlan special; it’s the ability of her band to move with such quick, warm-blooded responsiveness that makes Hop Along singular — a band that achieves massive impact with the lightest of touches. Throughout Painted Shut (the band’s first album for venerable Omaha indie Saddle Creek Records) the quartet is downright athletic, nimble and constantly finding new and sudden angles from which to burst and expand. Whatever direction Quinlan heads in, the band curves in kind, like a flock of sparrows following some hidden triptych. Painted Shut is punk music with post-bop jazz’s sinew (largely thanks to Mark Quinlan’s imaginative punk drumming); it moves with equal parts purpose and unpredictability, like your favorite point guard.
And as fleet and subtle as Hop Along might be, all of this alacrity is in service of one of the best pop records of the year. I cite Joni Mitchell first because, like a post-hardcore inflected version of Court and Spark or The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Painted Shut is at once intellectual and breezily satisfying. It’s the album an artist makes when they trust their own ideas and their own energy. Take “The Knock”, the album’s opening tracks and one of its best. The band moves and shapes itself with precision, two interlocking guitars dotting odd spaces over a beat that variably flows and pivots; and over all of that, Quinlan crafts a perfect hook out of a line like “The witness just wants to talk to you”. It’s the kind of casual yet spellbinding aside that Mitchell, at her jazziest, would effortlessly bronze into a chorus, as if on a whim. That kind of easygoing knack for tunefulness runs throughout Painted Shut. It’s a record that refuses to cede complexity to “difficulty”. Instead, all of its tricky rhythms and dense arrangements add up to something irresistible and warm.
There’s a music nerd’s driving game to be found in spotting the odd, cerebral phrases the band manages to turn into hooks. On “Waitress”, it’s “One million times”, sung with a gorgeous, sunny rasp, Quinlan reaching to the sanded top of her range. On “Texas Funeral” (one of the album’s best) the band gets a triumphant rallying cry out of “None of this is gonna happen to me”. It’s all in line with what Hop Along does best: take the spare parts of emo, alt-country, math rock, and late ‘80s SST indie and re-shape it at will (indeed only the more spartan first half of “Well-dressed” feels non-essential, though its swinging outro makes up ground). The record grabs musical stuff that normally seems pretty unbendable and makes it into new shapes with an effervescent ease that just about no one else has. “Horseshoe Crabs” borrows the nervy, tick-tock piano of Fiona Apple’s most recent work; “Waitress” recalls the ecstatic punk of Superchunk at their most optimistic. All of it gels. Painted Shut ends up as the kind of record you’d overhear in a record store someday and not just ask “Who is this”, but actually “Where did this come from?”
If all of this sounds academic, the vibrant originality of Hop Along is actually mostly deployed in the service of guitar-pop music communicating through instinct. Quinlan’s melodies manage to both consistently work as top-flight choruses, but also to soar just past where you think they might top out. “I Saw My Twin” begins in cool breeziness, sprinkled with agreeably prickly guitars and a cooing falsetto-as-riff. But the song works its way up and up, bigger and bigger until its refrain reaches a sweeping poignancy, Quinlan singing “Can I take your picture” (finding all the understated romance a question like might have) as a sharp riff haloes the melody. It’s the kind of thing you’d spot on Saves The Day’s Stay Where You Are, another pop-shaped punk record forever reaching for the next highest branch. And like Stay What You Are, there’s a reedy, alt-country glow to the album that defines songs like “Texas Funeral”, with its bending, astral guitars and general sense of prairie expanse, not to mention its rousing, enormous refrain, a bouncing melody that Quinlan hits harder each time (“None of this is gonna happen to me / None of this is gonna happen to me”). “Sister Cities” makes the roots-rock overtones of the LP even more explicit, riding a rustling Cold Roses snare and whiney slide guitars and adding a solo that once again recalls Stay What You Are standouts like “Certain Tragedy” in its Indian summer warmth. Quinlan, for her part, offers a fittingly scrappy vocal performance, leaning hard into her voice’s raspiest reaches.
Quinlan mentions “looking for Paul Simon” on “Horseshoe Crabs”, and indeed the legendary singer-songwriter is another touchstone for the album, not only for the jittery afro-punk shadings of “Powerful Man” and “I Saw My Twin” or the delicate transparency of “Happy To See Me”, but also for the way the LP inhabits its characters and their fears, hopes, and disappointments. Painted Shut operates like a book of short stories cut into stylized fragments; songs set scenes, fix emotional templates, and then let loose with stream of consciousness detail – contents of garages, images from dreams, the cul-de-sacs of real conversations. You recognize the kind of greasy spoon that provides a stage for “Waitress”, and some of the narrator’s weary self-consciousness, but the details are left both sketchy and specific, a balance at which Quinlan excels. Elsewhere, on “Powerful Man”, the main character tries to alert a teacher to an abused child, to no avail. Abstracts like “home” haunt the whole way through. The album ends up a collection of character sketches, as poignant and gripping as the tunes they’re set to. It’s somehow perfect that Painted Shut is being released by Saddle Creek, a label that, in its golden age, released LPs like Lifted and The Execution Of All Things — classics that boasted precisely this album’s knack for specificity and tangible detail. The real joy of Painted Shut is listening to the record as it builds then inhabits its own flesh-and-blood world.