Dance Like No One’s Watching:
Hop Along Finds Time to Paint Outside the Lines
Hop Along’s new album is chock full of surprises. Bark Your Head Off, Dog’s opening track is the most polished, textured thing the quartet has done. The album also makes liberal use of strings in a near-classical fashion that recalls Steve Reich or Nico Muhly. It’s an ambitious step forward from Painted Shut, the band’s guitar-driven breakthrough produced by alt-rock powerhouse Joe Agnello, yet it somehow preserves all of Hop Along’s cockeyed charms.
Against that backdrop, perhaps the most surprising twist is that Bark Your Head Off, Dog was self-produced. Frances Quinlan, Hop Along’s primary songwriter and frontwoman, sounds confidently matter-of-fact as she elaborates on the decision. “It wasn’t a step outside of our comfort zone. We recorded in the same studio as Painted Shut (the Headroom, which is walking distance from Quinlan’s Philadelphia home). That’s all the same – we’re just fortunate to have an excellent producer at our fingertips.” She’s referring to Hop Along guitarist Joe Reinhart, who runs Headroom along with Engineer Kyle Pulley and receives a “first among equals” production credit on Dog.
“Once the songs started coming along we knew we wanted the time to record everything we wanted,” Quinlan continues. “For Painted Shut the budget constraints of having a producer meant we had to cut our time in the studio. Now we were talking about strings and all this potential to expand upon the songs, not just being two guitars/bass/drums. We knew we wanted more.”
In many ways Bark Your Head Off, Dog has more in common with Get Disowned, the band’s 2012 debut, or even Freshman Year, the solo disc Quinlan recorded in high school and released as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis in 2005. “I can’t even remember half the stuff that’s on Disowned – it’s very layered,” she says, reminding me that album had its own doses of Rhodes and other keys, albeit in a grittier setting. A few strings even make a cameo deep in its mix. That record was also “self-produced,” in the sense of any bootstraps project cobbled together over an extended period.
Hop Along is commonly viewed as Quinlan’s vehicle, but she’s adamant that they’re a collaborative unit – a claim borne out by its personnel having remained stable across three albums, including her older brother Mark on drums. Still, it’s Quinlan’s evocative lyrics and distinctive vocal delivery that take center stage. “I wanted to be a short story author for awhile – probably because I figured I didn’t have the attention span for a book,” she explains self-effacingly. “A song is basically a short story.” At least it is in her hands. Quinlan’s not big on rhyming couplets, and mostly sidesteps straightforward choruses as well. The most traditional chorus on the new album is on “One That Suits Me,” wrapped in a lyric that reads like a prose excerpt on the printed page. The song opens with the line “Meanwhile, the scientist, pounding on his skull…” later referencing an “old man saying ‘Of course I am for peace,’” which leads into its deceptively sweet recitation of the song’s title. The tune works whether or not you notice the wordplay, thanks to its deft musical bed.
“Our editing process as a group – and mine on my own – is very arduous, in a good way,” Quinlan explains. “The words are the bones in the end. We’ll come up with pieces thru jams, but if I can’t find words to match they can’t turn into anything. I’m not prolific at all – I’m envious of people who are,” she continues, shedding light on the three-year spacing between albums.
Several of Painted Shut’s most memorable songs – “Powerful Man,” “I Saw My Twin,” “The Knock” – were written in the first person, lending an aura of autobiography. Quinlan has shied away from that device on Dog. “The songs do portray a part of my life that I’m witnessing, but there was no one particular event I felt I could hone in on this time around,” she allows. “With Painted Shut I wanted to paint a strong visual and with this record that wasn’t as big a concern. It was more a big general feeling I was grappling with.” The phrase “so strange to be shaped by such strange men” repeats in two songs, offering clues to an overarching theme.
The notion of painting recurs in Hop Along’s tale, for good reason. “I’m also a visual artist – my college degree in painting – so it’s been in my life a bunch of ways. I used to do these massive 6-7 foot paintings when I was in school.” Quinlan hasn’t ruled out going back to school or doing a painting residency, “but I haven’t had the time for it in the past decade or so.” Inspiration finds ways into packed schedules, however – Quinlan painted and collaged the cover art for Bark Your Head Off, Dog outside of Athens on an off day, while the band was enjoying some time in the woods with their tour manager’s father. She’s done the covers for all three albums. Her mother is also a visual artist, whom she enjoys working into the packaging. “If it’s a bird, my mother probably did it,” Quinlan guides.
Which returns us to 2015’s Painted Shut. Without expressing overt frustration with the experience, Quinlan has frequently referred to its process as rushed. Juxtaposing it with the new one, “I’d say we had the most power on this record – we didn’t have to work around so many work schedules. I mean, I remember I was a house painter during Get Disowned – I remember riding my bike from work to the train station to get to the sessions for that one.” These days, Quinlan works regular shifts at Johnny Brenda’s, one of its indie scene’s main venues, which allows for more flexibility.
This freedom afforded the opportunity to experiment with string players, who Hop Along knew through their Philly scenemates and frequent touring partners Dr. Dog. “I don’t speak the language of strings, which made it hard at times but happy accidents happened as a result. We’re all fans of The Beatles and I share fandom of ELO with a couple of people in the band. The idea of strings became concrete along the way. How we wanted them to work varied from song to song. It’s funny – there were a couple songs where I felt strongly about strings and they ended up not working, and then others it was just ‘let’s try it’ and they worked really well.” The two ends of that spectrum can be characterized by “How You Got Your Limp,” which is essentially Quinlan’s prose set to a chamber piece, and closer “Prior Things,” on which the violin and cello tear into a circular riff that gradually gives way to a danceable full-band groove.
Quinlan is intrigued by the possibility of bringing strings on the road at some point, but economic realities preclude such extravagances for now. “We did add a fifth member for the tour, though (Chrissy Tashjian of Philly band Thin Lips, whose own debut album is imminent), who sings all over this record, and past records too. She also gives us an extra set of hands for keys – we’ve had keyboards for a couple of shows before, but never for a full tour.” It’s safe to assume the new songs will be cast a fair bit differently from the renditions on Hop Along’s self-described “studio album,” especially since they’re known as a kinetic live act. “We’re not trying to mimic the record anyway – I’m glad there’s some room for changes.”
Quinlan’s front-and-center voice somehow manages to straddle the line between remarkable acrobatic range and the raw aura of unschooled passion. She confirmed that her few formal lessons were as a pre-teen theater kid. “I had all the attitude but not the skill,” she laughs. “I remember I auditioned for the part of Dorothy in sixth grade and they decided I was best suited for the Wicked Witch of the West – which really upset me but turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve had. I think it says a lot about my style at the time.”
She amends herself to add one recent session with a vocal coach to get some exercises, which must be essential to keeping her pipes in game shape on the road given Quinlan’s raspy wail. She’s already noticed an evolution in her voice since the early records, a shift she attributes to age as well as experience. “My voice has changed– I can’t do much about that. It’s happened to some of my favorites – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – through, age, wear and tear or whatever. I will say Neil Young seems to have found a way to do it. But also my influences are changing. I was very limited even a couple years ago physically in expressing what I meant. I’m a very determined writer, and sometimes words can get in the way of your voice. So many great words sound very ugly – I always struggle, ‘I want to use this word but I can’t make it sound good.’” Fortunately, this hasn’t dissuaded her from including unconventional lyrics like “Notification: 8 executions by drug to beat the expiration” on the guitar-driven “Somewhere a Judge,” probably my favorite track on Bark Your Head Off, Dog. And the way she alternately drawls and snarls the refrain “Nobody deserves you the way that I do,” on “Tibetan Pop Stars” from Get Disowned indicates she’s underselling her early chops.
Yet another surprise is the band video for opening track “How Simple,” an uncharacteristically lighthearted vignette of a disheveled Quinlan bopping around her apartment, eating cereal, etc. while her bandmates stoically play their instruments. “I get stressed every album about the fact we’ll be asked to make a video. It’s just not my comfort zone – in my ideal world they’d all be animated or clay animation, I find that much more interesting.” The impressionistic video for Painted Shut’s standout “Powerful Man” is probably a good (if lower budget) example of her preference.
“But for this one, I’m the kind of person who loves to dance around the house alone. I’ve spent more time alone the last couple of years, and I felt like that’s a truth worth expressing.” Given the presumption of autobiography, I had to ask if “How Simple” was filmed in her own apartment, and she quickly clarifies that it was shot at a friend’s place. “I thought that would be a bit much, too personal.”
Photo by Tonje Thilesen.