Known for her powerfully expressive voice, Frances Quinlan’s new album is a collection of elegant and unconventional sounds. Likewise, being the first release under the singer’s own name, works with an untraditional mix of instruments, from the harp to contemporary beats. The lead voice of Hop Along doesn’t mask the author of the album, on the contrary, it becomes instantly clear who the creator is, but the band still makes a collective impact. With the members taking part in the recording, the album itself started with Hop Along, as “A Secret” and “Went to LA” were originally recorded for Bark Your Head Off, Dog, making the electric folk sound the common denominator among the two albums.
The visuals burst through from the start of “Piltdown Man,” as the clean synth and vocals put Quinlan at center stage. Packed with narrative and memories, the high notes make the audience listen to the lyrics through the auditory rollercoaster of Quinlan’s potent voice. In a Joni Mitchell-esque style, the jolly sound covers up the heavier topics, as done in “Your Reply” where “the author, I read, fell from the window many stories high.” The lyrically cryptic message is almost like narrative inception of a tale within a story.
The vocal transition from the passive screaming to lullaby-like melody is replaced with a more modern beat in “Rare Thing,” the track which stands out among the acoustic compositions. The momentary energy released with the singer’s voice doesn’t last long enough, feeling suppressed at times, and yet, texturally, it is an incredibly “feel good” song. The melodic development, where the build-up goes through a tonal shift in the lead up to the chorus, keeps the audience listening without missing a beat. There is no clear structure to the album as it develops from the acoustics to the dance-along sound to then be replaced by the fairy tale harp of Mary Lattimore in “Detroit Lake.” Not many musicians can perform a song as poetically as Quinlan about potentially cannibalistic pigeons and blooming algae, but the singer does it with such grace that no questions are raised.
The relatively calm tone of the release does become a bit repetitive halfway through the album. “A Secret” feels like something already heard before, but the song still doesn’t allow you to dismiss it. The lyrics are never overshadowed by the instruments, with the confrontational message of ‘I’m not making fun, most of this isn’t even a secret’ piercing through the singer’s vocal cords. At the same time, the second half of the album is when Quinlan lets her strong voice run free, while not overloading the compositions with instrumentals. “Went to LA,” filled with a sense of internal observation, seems like this auditory release, even when in the simple company of an acoustic guitar and harp. The line ‘heaven is a second chance’, while being rapidly delivered, combines the loud and calm texture of Quinlan, as the realization hits: Likewise is governed by the musician’s vocals and nothing else.
“Now That I’m Back,” being sonically opaque, flirts with both tranquil and energetic rhythms, without ever committing to one. The song, even with the rare textural juxtaposition, feels somewhat loose, as the singer’s classic auditory highs become the back vocals. What started as an acoustic journey, closes on a produced beat with a layer of distorted guitar. Potentially the most complex instrumental arrangement on the album, “Carry the Zero” holds a mysterious message with a rather punchy beat. You can’t explain it, but her voice radiates through the clearest frequencies making the line ‘and you’ve become, what you thought was dumb, a fraction of the sum’ as vivid as it gets.
Likewise, even if repetitive at times, is this mixture of contemporary acoustics and Quinlan’s voice, making the lyric rise to the surface without a fail. The sonically contradicting album leaves you with a sense of ease, which, all things considered, is far from the worst thing to experience.