Hop Along’s appeal is more or less defined by frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s distinctive musical personality, in which she seamlessly transitions between wonderfully unhinged yelps and delicate whispers. Her singing voice isn’t attractive in the conventional sense. However, the more it breaks during shrill, impassioned verses, the more apparent it becomes that Quinlan’s approach to songwriting is to expel every ounce of emotion contained within her small frame into declarations of frustration and unease.
Quinlan’s sentiment has been the focal point of Hop Along’s music since their full-band debut in 2012’s “Get Disowned” and has created a hallowed relationship with the group’s passionate, ever-growing fanbase. The latest record, “Bark Your Head Off, Dog,” primarily revolves around themes of power and scorn for those who exploit it, but Quinlan’s vague, poetic songwriting style leaves it to listeners to interpret individual meanings for themselves.
In two instances on the album Quinlan recites the ambiguous line, “So strange to be shaped by such strange men,” a statement that seems to concede to the unwelcome influence of men throughout her adult experience. Though—as is standard for Quinlan—meaning isn’t so much plainly provided as it is hinted at, alluded to from song to song. But in “One That Suits Me,” this subject matter seems to rear its head once more with lines, “In an open field, man is guilty always” and “The century turned and your old man stumbled in / Saying ‘Of course I am for peace / One that suits me.'” The latter seems to imply that man’s desire for peace is almost entirely based out of self-interest, as opposed to a greater, universal objective.
While the band’s past releases have fallen back on the standard arrangements and instrumentation comprising the modern indie-rock sound, “Bark Your Head Off, Dog,” displays a clear expansion toward an eclectic array of musical elements. The songs “How You Got Your Limp” and “Prior Things” feature expressive orchestral arrangements that build upon the ambiance set by Quinlan’s guitar strums, while “The Fox in Motion” presents the group’s biggest sonic leap, structuring the track around a synthetic drum-pad rhythm. While the song’s conventional, pop-influenced style is unexpected, the integrity of the band doesn’t falter. Hop Along have shown an urge to broaden their sound, but the original elements that make them a beloved act remain: diverse guitar work, constantly evolving melodies and an undeniable heartbeat behind every track.
The diverse sonic palate isn’t just for aesthetic reasons, however, as it contributes to the overall meaning of songs such as “Not Abel,” which at its opening exhibits a classical style rife with harp plucks and a vocal delivery reminiscent of Joanna Newsom’s elegant style. It seems to exist in a different time and fittingly drops listeners within Quinlan’s interpretation of the biblical Cain and Abel tale. However, when the lyrics shift to her more recent, personal memories, a driving electric guitar progression and beat enter to follow the contemporary change.
The musical height of the album comes near its end with “Look of Love,” a loose narrative that explores personal feelings of guilt that arise with the misfortune of others. Quinlan recalls a neighbor’s dog that tormented her as a child and the darkness that rose in her after a shameful relief when it was hit by a car. As the song grows in sonic scope and emotional fervor, she closes off the song with the repeated line, “Bark your head off, dog,” her dead adversary’s bark maintaining its presence in her thoughts.
Though thematically nebulous, “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” nonetheless proves itself as Hop Along’s most emotionally mature and sonically ambitious album to date. With the band conceding their former coarse nature for one of a mindfully pieced-together outlook, Frances Quinlan’s strong central presence is allowed even more room for earnest conviction, and the final result is naturally mesmerizing.
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