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30 January 2020

Frances Quinlan leans into uncertainty on her debut solo record, Likewise

The Hop Along frontwoman's album is a masterful example of songwriting as a mode of enquiry. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“Why would he do such a thing? / Of course, what a stupid question,” sings Frances Quinlan on “Piltdown Man”, answering her query as quickly as she asked it. She pauses between “stupid” and “question” as though shaking her head at her own naivety. But though she may be self-depricating, she still allows herself to ask the stupid question in the first place: to doubt, hesitate, backtrack. On Likewise, the debut solo album from the frontwoman of US band Hop Along, out on Saddle Creek this Friday, Quinlan leans into her uncertainties.

There’s a nostalgic element to “Piltdown Man”. In the background, we hear kids running around a school gym, their trainers squeaky on a maple wood floor. Quinlan’s rhythms have a playful feel, her elastic vocal line rubbing up against pared-back piano. But she reminisces from a mature distance, narrating short, obscure scenes with a shrewd brilliance. “Here comes your dad,” she picks up, “annoyed but wildly patient.” Mixed in with these observations are lines far vaguer, too short to do more than gesture in a general direction. “A template, if there is one / I still think of,” she sings, that conditional hanging in the air, as she leverages half-finished ideas to just the same importance as fully formed ones.

It’s unsurprising that a degree of apprehension peppers the first record to which Quinlan puts her own name – this is a step into unknown territory, after all. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this wavering might make for a meagre first solo attempt. With Quinlan at the helm, it becomes a masterful showcase of the many ways a songwriter can be – hesitant, inquisitive, unsure, obsessive, all in the space of a few lines. 

Likewise comes with sonic likenesses to Phoebe Bridgers and Snail Mail; Quinlan has of course been around much longer. The record follows four critically acclaimed guitar-led indie-rock albums – Freshman Year (2005), Get Disowned (2012), Painted Shut (2015) and Bark your Head Off, Dog (2017) – from the Philadelphia-based Hop Along, which Quinlan started as a solo freak-folk project while she was still in high school. It went on to become a quartet, with Quinlan’s brother, Mark, on drums, Joe Reinhart on guitar and Tyler Long on bass. Quinlan recorded Likewise with Reinhart at his studio and the pair share production credits. 

Alongside her expert lyricism, it is Quinlan’s outrageously singular vocal technique that stands out. In a Vulture review of Hop Along’s 2015 single “Waitress”, Lindsay Zoladz picked up on how Quinlan’s voice is “violently sweet, like a bite of cake so sugary that it actually causes you physical pain. Her delivery is ecstatically wide-eyed and her tone is gravelly, like a chain-smoking toddler who is about to punch you in the mouth.” On Likewise Quinlan’s voice inhabits these contradictory characteristics more than ever before, in one instance warm and flirtatious, and then immediately afterwards raw and cutting. 

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She wields her voice less as a weapon than as a tool, often taking the lead from the sonic quality of the backing instruments. On “Lean”, she’s reminiscent of Arc Iris’s Jocie Adams, nasal over strings and harp that veer towards each other in a pagan-sounding close harmony. On “Rare Thing”, a breezy yet tender love song, Quinlan recounts a dream she had about her then-infant niece, and sounds as bright as the synths that accompany her. “I know there is / love that doesn’t have to do with / taking something / from somebody,” she sings, her line-breaks audible as gushing breaths.

The finest moments of Likewise are those Quinlan threads with questions. Occasionally hers are practical requests: “Jessie, can I crash here with you tonight?” More likely they are far more introspective, glimmers of thoughts she still hasn’t quite figured out: “Out of self-preservation did I begin with tenderness?” or “Was so much for me not real?” Quinlan knows the power of using songwriting not as a vehicle for declaration but as a method of inquiry. She may call those questions “stupid”, but she knows not to edit them out.

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