Album Review: Hop Along, ‘Painted Shut’
There's a moment on Painted Shut, the sophomore album by Philadelphia quartet Hop Along, where frontwoman Frances Quinlan digs into the rasp at the back of her throat and sings, "Staring at the ass crack of dawn," as the rest of the band's tentative jangle momentarily parts ways for her voice to hang ever so briefly in the air. Quinlan then follows-up with a reference to Paul Simon. It may sound humorous on paper, but it's clear that there are serious sentiments at play here.
Nevertheless, Painted Shut doesn't give its rewards away so easily. Even in the aforementioned verse, it's not 100 percent clear what Quinlan is driving at, nor is it necessarily apparent what the rest of the band is trying to get you to feel either.
It is this sense of uncertainty and tension that Hop Along mine for the maximum enrichment of their music. In fact, all throughout Painted Shut, the music and words juxtapose one another in a kind of dance. At times, both the music and words flicker like ambiguously-shaped shadows. Even when Quinlan does, for example, explicitly illustrate a scene or image in one of her verses, connecting the dots is up to you. Likewise: Domestic abuse (perpetrated in this case by a father toward his 8-year-old son) has probably never been framed in as pleasant or approachable a pop song as "Powerful Man." And it's not until several verses and choruses have gone by -- when Quinlan starts scraping against the back of her throat again, guitarist Joe Reinhart's guitar chords grow bigger and more brittle, and drummer Mark Quinlan's cymbals swell -- that you get a sense for the gut-wrenching emotional conflict that actually drives the song.
Quinlan's bystander protagonist feels paralyzed, opts not to intervene, and -- presumably -- leaves the scene scarred by a kind of self-doubt and shame that's, arguably, more insidious and hard to pinpoint than the beaten child's. Other times, her images -- though less stark -- make an equally profound impact. One narrator, just awoken from a dream, addresses a never-identified character who's busy "building insects" in the garage. Quinlan never spells-out the relationship between the two, or even what's at stake between them, but her verses leave more than enough to chew on and make strong impressions of your own. Examples like this abound all over the record.
Meanwhile, the whole band swells to dramatic crescendos and quickly lets them die down again -- sometimes at the beginning of a song, other times in the bridge or towards the end. Time and again, they nudge the mood into unexpected places. On Painted Shut, everyone present helps advance Hop Along's evolution from a Quinlan solo project to a full band.