Release Date: February 29, 2016
Label: Saddle Creek
To the majority of their fans, Philly upstarts Hop Along appeared fully formed in 2015 with their breakthrough LP, Painted Shut. It was singer-guitarist Frances Quinlan’s third album, her second with a full band after recruiting bassist Tyler Long, second guitarist Joe Reinhart, and drummer/brother Mark Quinlan. So overwhelmingly warm was the reception that Saddle Creek is reissuing its predecessor, Get Disowned, even though it’s just three years old. This reprise of older material is itself a retelling of recent memories, many of them heartbreaking, embarrassing, or worse. Few young bands are strong enough to handle so much delicate material; Hop Along inhabit it. Get Disowned is an aching tribute to how wrong we were when we imagined that things would be better when we grew up.
Quinlan’s is a world populated by two-faced adults and cruel ex-lovers, where gruesome death and dismemberment can happen to anyone at any time — that is to say, this world. In a 2012 interview with Philadelphia’s Phawker, Quinlan cited the injury or death of no fewer than four close family and friends as sources for her songs. The album offers no prologue to explain how things got this bad, only pregnant hints like, “Maybe you’ve been orphaned unforgivably” and “There are some parents whose children long for divorce” (“Diamond Mine”). “The way to live is to be able to live with death because you’re really in touch with now — with the moment — and you have to accept death,” Quinlan told Phawker.
Her band does not welcome death, but they don’t begrudge it, either. Disowned is a heavy blanket, weighted with dense thickets of guitars, frantic piano, and unconventional structures that rattle against the cage of conventional rock songs. The signature instrument is Quinlan’s voice. Her singing is jagged-edged; raw where she needs emphasis and artfully withered where she needs even more. Witness the tortured cry on “Diamond Mine,” the multilayered self-harmonies in a verse about total abandonment on “Laments,” and the power with which she slingshots notes as she screams out her version of the American underdog story — “You are my favorite because you’re a long shot” — on “No Good Al Joad.” Though, actually winning would probably embarrass them; being the underdog is their forte.
Hop Along come packaged with a surfeit of empathy, a compassion so all-encompassing that the story of a troubled couple in “Laments” is told from the perspective of their long-suffering mattress. Nowhere is the fervent welcome to life’s coldest corners more evident than in the catchy slide guitar (played by Cage the Elephant’s Nick Bockrath) on “Sally II.” It’s the kind of rollicking folk-rock jam that by rights ought to be about cheating the devil and hitting the open road. But it’s actually an itemized post-mortem of a lonely old man whose body begins to decompose in his bathtub. It’s upbeat, jaunty, and bleak as hell.
Though Painted Shut was their breakthrough, Disowned‘s “Tibetan Pop Stars” is as close to having a hit as Hop Along have come thus far. It’s good, but if you have only three minutes to figure out how this band works, try “Kids on the Boardwalk.” It’s an unblinking tale of playground crushes and premature sexualization, and how the intervening years have burned the guilt out of everyone’s heart except the sensitive child’s. Abbreviated chords build into a push-pull pattern of verses and non-choruses, capped off by screeching guitars and Quinlan’s elegiac entreaty: “I want to love something without it having to need me.”
Boasting the advantage of star producer John Agnello, Painted Shut (which Get Disowned will be, perhaps unfairly, judged against) possesses a certain finesse its predecessor lacks. Hop Along’s earlier songs are blurrier in the details, seemingly heard though a haze akin to carousel-projector photos — or maybe that’s just the sting of their nostalgia and its ultimate driver, acceptance of death. One wonders if Quinlan will run out of painful experiences to mine for songwriting inspiration, hoping for her own sake that she will and for ours that she won’t.