Album Review: Hop Along’s “Painted Shut”

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Painted Shut, Hop Along’s sophomore album, which was released in 2015, is like driving along a highway from Pennsylvania to Arizona. It’s like reading a collection of short stories and poems which seem to have nothing in common. It’s like watching people on the subway and trying to imagine what it’s like to be them. That’s the power and beauty of Frances Quinlan’s songwriting: her ability to capture experiences and emotions intimately and intensely.

Quinlan starting writing music when she was 17, and went on to release her first solo album under the moniker Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. Titled Freshman Year, this freak-folk album featured stories Quinlan told with her purple guitar and shaky, creaky voice. After college, she started a band with her brother, Mark Quinlan, on drums, along with guitarist Joe Reinhart from Algernon Cadwallader and bassist Tyler Long.

Their first LP, titled Get Disowned, attained moderate success, with the single “Tibetan Pop Stars” getting an honorable mention from Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 on Twitter, who called it “the most painfully beautiful song ever.” The band went on to release their critically acclaimed sophomore album Painted Shut in 2015.

Why this album is so touching lies in the stories Quinlan weaves, from the non-fiction to the entirely fantastical and mysterious. “Buddy in the Parade” is a heartbreaking story of Buddy “King” Bolden, New Orleans cornetist and one of the founding figures of Jazz. Quinlan sings about the tragedy of his life: that he suffered from alcoholic psychosis and dementia, and, after a mental episode at the age of 30, spent the remaining 20 years of life in an asylum, only to be put to rest in an unmarked grave. “I heard you were the king/You didn’t leave behind a goddamn thing,” Quinlan sings, lamenting that, despite his notoriety, Buddy left no recordings of his music.

Painted Shut revolves largely around the tragic topic of mental disorders and how they affect the mind, continuing on to the song “Horseshoe Crabs.” It is the story of Jackson C. Frank, a folk singer who suffered from alcoholism and passed away largely unrecognized for his work, despite working with Simon and Garfunkel on his first album. His song, “Blues Run the Game,” was posthumously covered by the duo, as well as by Nick Drake and Counting Crows, among others. “One night in the park, the pellet gun/ Took out an eye I came undone,” the song “Horseshoe Crabs” goes, recalling the time Frank lost an eye accidentally to some kids playing in the park.

Despite how these songs read like Wikipedia articles, they are filled with anger and disappointment, that talent gets wasted simply because the artists suffer from disorders that were largely misunderstood at the time. The entire album is not solely about deceased musicians, however. “Well-Dressed” is about depression, and the effect it has on a family and the many forms it comes in, ultimately leading the victim, despite their efforts, down the wrong path. Songs like “Waitress” and “I Saw My Twin” recount short stories of awkward situations, such as seeing a friend of a friend at your work, or meeting someone who looks just like you. “Powerful Man” is a tale of uncertainty, after the narrator witnesses a man beating his child in public and cannot find help, becoming unable to act in the face of this abuse.

What makes these songs so re-playable is the mystery Quinlan injects into each one. For instance, on the face of it, “The Knock” is a song of a Jehovah’s Witness knocking at your door, and the brief conversation you have. But the mystery enters into it upon re-listening, when the narrator mentions that they, “could hear you in the garage, building insects,” suggesting a decomposing corpse, and the chorus, ‘The witness just wants to talk to you,” takes on a second meaning.

The whole album is like this, just phrases that could unfold in any way, each one changing entire songs from fun, catchy tunes to dark and enigmatic tales. It closes with “Sister Cities,” a perfect representation of this fusion of storytelling and sing-along hooks. The song ends with the words “Yeah, I know you had to shoot that dog I loved so much/I know you had to do it” on repeat, tying up the story of a family torn apart, but ultimately, reunited.

With Quinlan’s immense storytelling talent and Reinhart’s unique skill with the guitar, this album exceeds in its ability to feel new with every listen. Each story is woven into a tapestry that goes from addiction and disorder to compassion and forgiveness. It feels authentic and gives itself to telling these stories in complex and interesting ways, ultimately leaving the listener wanting a satisfying ending, but never getting one.

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