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Hop Along - Painted Shut (Album Review)

Friday, 08 May 2015 Written by Huw Baines

If we're truly honest, there aren't that many of us who learn from our mistakes, face up to our personal failings or try to understand the world through the lens of others. That Frances Quinlan has been on a mission to do that across two Hop Along records is what makes the band such a powerful proposition.

The idea of growth is writ large across 'Painted Shut'. The Philadelphia quartet have evolved, losing some of the giddy musical complexity of 'Get Disowned' in favour of a more straightforward, some would say pop, sensibility. Their care and attention to every element of its delivery, though, means that this is anything but a straightforward album.

Quinlan will challenge you at every turn. She is a lyricist of rare intelligence and candour, one who takes on the stories of others with as much compassion and perception as she affords the old personal wounds that course throughout. Here, Hop Along’s compositional chops add subtle melodic flecks to some bleak imagery and heart-rending narratives.

At the centre of the album are Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank, groundbreaking musicians from the jazz and folk scenes whose stories captivated Quinlan.

Both men are posthumously regarded as greats, but were pushed to the margins as they lived with mental health problems. Bolden’s plight ended with his burial in an unmarked grave in New Orleans’ Holt Cemetery. “I heard you were the king,” Quinlan sings on Buddy In The Parade. “You didn’t leave behind a goddamn thing.”

They inform the album’s almost omnipresent sense of loss and its attempts to make sense of irrevocable hurt. On Powerful Man, the band juxtapose Quinlan’s lament for a moment of inaction - when she, as a teenager, walked away from a man beating his child - with a big hook. It gives the listener nowhere to hide.

Joe Reinhart peppers the record with subtle, mellifluous guitar work that, while not as involved as ‘Get Disowned’, perfectly underscores the album’s shifting emotional tone. When Quinlan lets loose on Waitress, a song tied together by strings of social anxiety and ‘it’s a small world’ abrasions, she double stamps her position as the most powerful, emotive vocalist in indie. Or anywhere, really.

Albums that engage the thing beating in your chest and buzzing away inside your skull at the same time are very, very rare. Hop Along are two for two. ‘Painted Shut’ is different to its predecessor but, given time, it will be cherished in precisely the same manner.

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