With each new album, Hop Along’s endearing style is becoming increasingly more difficult to characterize in a simple, concise phrase. Even as they dissect anguish in the face of misogyny or the horrors of violence, they are constructing self-reflective ballads and peppy dance tracks that carry the same weight on the twentieth listen as they did on the first. A band seemingly permanently fixed at the top of their game, Hop Along have long been an indie, lo-fi favorite, but their latest album makes an airtight argument for their place among modern rock’s most remarkable offerings.
It’s all too easy to become fixated on frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s raw, domineering vocals, but on the band’s latest record, her trademark snarl is somewhat restrained, allowing the focus to include the bouncy, spastic rhythm section so crucial to Hop Along’s signature sound. Although guitarist Joe Reinhart, bassist Tyler Long, and drummer Mark Quinlan — Frances’s brother — have always crafted such richly textured tracks together, Bark Your Head Off, Dog takes their ambitions to a new level. The album is delicately peppered with fluttering guitar riffs, layered backing choruses, synthesizer tickles, swooning string arrangements, and, in the case of “How You Got Your Limp,” haunting, celestial whistles. Musically, the record is much more mellow than Get Disowned or Painted Shut, but it still packs quite a wallop with its intricate attention to detail.
There is a crisp varnish over the album, but it maintains a structured chaos that affords its grandiose tales room to breathe. These tracks blur the boundaries of genre and tone, none more radically than centerpiece “Not Abel.” The biblical reimagining transitions between wildly contrasting movements, one being a folksy, mandolin-driven chamber tune and the other an unrelenting rocker than truly allows the band to let loose. As the story hurdles toward its climax, Frances Quinlan shows off her incredible vocal range. She doesn’t simply glide up and down the musical scale; she continues to find ways to make each individual note unique. Her soaring bravado hammers home the enthusiastic tracks (“The Fox in Motion,” “Somewhere a Judge”) and causes the delicate moments (“One that Suits Me,” “Look of Love,” “How You Got Your Limp”) to pop with gripping urgency.
A powerfully gifted lyricist, Quinlan’s center of attention remains visualizing the experience of an audience consuming these songs. Here, she has learned to trust the listener, with less abstract lyrics that still leave significant room for open-ended interpretation. She is able to work through grand statements about humanity or use seemingly innocuous details to flesh out a compelling narrative, but so much of her talent lies in building a catchy earworm, designing a phrase that concert-goers can chant along, like “Don’t worry / We will both find out / Just not together” from “How Simple” (reminiscent of the infectious “My love is average / I obey an average law” from 2012’s “Tibetan Pop Stars”).
As the album draws to a close, it intensifies, giving way to the band’s most impressive efforts to date. Elaborate, ethereal tracks like “What the Writer Meant” and “Look of Love” blossom into swirling overtures. The record’s crowning achievement, however, is its final tune, “Prior Things,” an entrancing number than encapsulates all of the album’s notions, both musically and thematically. The expansive nearly-six-minute song takes a sparse acoustic skeleton and continuously finds a palette of fluid, poignant sounds to orbit around it. It may very well be the first truly flawless track of 2018.
One of contemporary rock’s most chameleonic bands, Hop Along prove to constantly be searching for their own artistic limitations. If they’ve found any, it certainly doesn’t show anywhere on Bark Your Head Off, Dog. At times the record simultaneously calls to mind a vast host of influences, from Rhythm of the Saints era Paul Simon to mid-90s No Doubt and so many landmarks in between. Never settling for easy resolutions, Bark Your Head Off, Dog is the mark of a band tapping into the same cosmic wavelength with one another, and it is sure to spark a wave of imitators. Let’s hope that at least a few of them are able to capture the aching splendor of this exquisite record.