A few dozen of us encircled Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan.
I’m pretty sure she was the last act of the day at a “welcome back to school” concert at SUNY New Paltz. Several other acts preceded hers, also unknown. The biggest name at the time was probably Paul Baribeau, who hasn’t even released an album since 2010, but here she was, alone in the middle of a small circle, strumming wildly across her guitar strings and pushing her unmic’d voice loud and passionate.
She could have been a counselor at a summer camp. She could have been among friends, pulling out her guitar to pass the time. She was unassuming – just the lone member of a freak folk act in a time when freak folk acts were kind of everywhere.
This was 2007, and Hop Along wasn’t exactly anything special. The act wasn’t even called “Hop Along” at the time. Officially, it went by “Hop Along, Queen Ansleis,” which is a much more precious and cumbersome name, and honestly, the music was mostly precious and cumbersome, too. Quinlan stuffed as many twee lyrics as she could into every moment. The songs came off as a fury of guitar strums and stream of conscious emotions vomited out of her wide mouth to cleanse her body.
And I know that all sounds like a dig on Hop Along’s early music, but I was into it. The small crowd that sat cross-legged or stood swaying around her and watched her sing passionately to a bunch of state university hipsters all around her same age – they were all into it, too. I love Hop Along’s first album, Freshman Year. It was full of the raw feelings of angst and loneliness and adventure that tend to come out when you’re in college and figuring out who you are going to be for the rest of your entire life.
At the time of that show, I had just graduated from college in Ohio, and I moved to the Hudson Valley to live closer to my future wife (who went to New Paltz at the time). I had no money and no job and no place to live. This was the scariest time in my life.
Jesus, did Hop Along appeal to me back then. The way everything sort of ran together and over each other even on the starkest tracks. The way she seemed to have absolutely nothing figured out in a time when I had nothing figured out, either. I loved it. I ate it up. I can’t listen to that album now without feeling nostalgia for a time when all my safety nets moved out from under me, and I had to figure out how the hell I was going to make it across the tightrope without falling to my doom.
Here’s the thing, Quinlan is a few years younger than me. She released Freshman Year in 2005, and then didn’t release another album until Get Disowned in 2012. By then, I was married. I was working full time at the same place for four years already. I owned my own house. I was a real-ass adult with everything figured out!
In that time, I have no idea what Quinlan was doing in her life. Growing up in some way, probably. Maybe she graduated from college. Maybe she bought a house like I did or got married or worked a real job. I can’t say for sure. But in the seven years since her first album and the five years since I saw her play that small show, I know for certain that she got herself a full band and learned what makes her (and thus her band) special.
And boy is it special.
She can switch between her natural singing voice, a falsetto and a throat-scratching croak at a moment’s notice while staying on pitch. That croak is the important thing. That’s the special thing. It’s sort of like a pug – so perfectly ugly that it’s kind of beautiful. At some point between albums, she figured out this croak would be her ultimate weapon.
She seldom let that croak loose on Freshman Year, but her two best moments came when she made her throat bleed on “Bruno is Orange” and “The Goose and the Wren.” Those songs go from sweet to ugly in the best possible way when she lets her inhibitions go and straight up screams. On a third song, “Laments of a Mattress,” she flirted with her croak but never quite got there.
That third song makes another appearance on Get Disowned – this time called “Laments.” Guess what? She brings it exactly where it needs to go. It starts innocuously enough, almost exactly like its original incarnation in fact, with a lightly strummed electric guitar replacing her acoustic. A drum kicks in after a while with a sweet backing track. It’s all pretty simple until she hits the chorus and the croak pushes its way through the door and holds the song at gunpoint in a controlled but violent robbery.
I saw Hop Along again last Thursday. Instead of a field and small audience, I saw her at a real venue, The Grog Shop (in Cleveland Heights), and with a real audience (seemed pretty packed). Technically, I think the show was in support of the reissue of Get Disowned, but they mostly played songs off last year’s much better Painted Shut.
Since my daughter was born a little over a year ago, I pretty much stopped drinking. I have this fear that I’ll drunkenly drop her if she wakes up in the middle of the night or make some sort of bad decision if I’m drinking and a health emergency comes up. Even before she was born, I rarely drank much at shows I was covering anyway. I’m a professional like that.
Except at this particular show.
You see, my daughter had been sick all week, so I had what I like to call “a week.” I brought my notebook and pen, and I showed up sober just in time to see local pop-punk band Meridian start their excellent set. With time to kill and a killer opener, I decided to get a drink. Apparently, at this point it only takes one drink to get me drunk. Like a badass, I ordered a second (Mainly because the bartender forced me to order more than one drink. I guess to use a credit card, there’s a minimum $10 charge, and that can’t include the tip.).
By the time Hop Along started playing, I was drunk on a sad amount of alcohol. I had my notebook in hand, ready to scribble down every little detail like my super professional ass usually does, but I wasn’t feeling it – not the show, but the note taking part of it. After the turnt week I just had, I didn’t have it in me to do anything but enjoy the show along with all the normals.
Turns out, this was probably the best possible move anyway. There wasn’t much overt or showy about this band. Their performance was tight, but their exchanges were casual to the point of being familial. That makes sense given that Quinlan’s brother Mark is the band’s drummer. They talked and laughed and smiled at each other with the ease of a band who are genuinely friends, and I’m not sure I would have caught that if I spent half my time staring down at my notebook. Hop Along seemed less interested in putting on a dope show and more interested in having a dope time with each other, and I mean that as a compliment.
Quinlan’s croak was not quite as subtle as the band’s easy chemistry. Painted Shut ratcheted up occurrences of her signature vocal move, but the shiny production and fresh vocal chords took some of the bite out of them. For an album, that’s probably a good thing, but seeing Hop Along live, I was glad she turned up the nasty on that croak.
I’m not sure if her voice sounded so dirty because it was live or because they’ve been on tour and her voice is crazy raw right now. I don’t care which one it was. There were times when it sounded like someone took a bone saw to her throat, and I was loving it.
With the distortion turned way up and the vocals decidedly rock and roll, I realized that this was exactly who she was supposed to become. It was a far cry from that first little show at New Paltz, but she was touring with a bunch of punk bands way back then. In her heart, she must have known. She was always supposed to be up on a stage, wailing into a microphone with a full band rocking behind her. That’s who she was always meant to be.
It’s rare to see a band or artist become exactly what they should be – the best versions of themselves. I don’t know if it’ll hold. Plenty of my favorite bands hit on what made them special for a few albums before abandoning them, not realizing what parts of themselves made them great. Hop Along seems different, though. Quinlan has built upon the best aspects of her ability and songwriting on every album since that first release, which tells me she at least has some idea of her own greatness.
And it’s even rarer to see someone roughly my own age go through musical maturity in lockstep with my maturation into adulthood. Too often, bands stick with sounds or songwriting too young for them and never change, but here Hop Along is making music age-appropriate for themselves and age-appropriate for my own 30-something-year-old ass. And they were making music age-appropriate for my 22-year-old ass back in 2007.
Every step of the way so far (and hopefully every step in the future), Hop Along was there, growing and refining what I will begrudgingly call “their craft.”
Hop Along @ Grog Shop | Cleveland, OH February 25th 2016 Concert Gallery Below.