A great voice is a dime a dozen. Marnie from Girls has an objectively great voice. So does Miley Cyrus. And there are hundreds of choirs across America with their own Mileys who just haven’t had the opportunity to let their wrecking ball fly.
What interests me about a singer, then, is everything besides their natural talent: how far they stretch their range, what kind of sounds they pull from their larynx, how they tease out their lyrical phrases and dig into the musicians around them.
Frances Quinlan of the band Hop Along has an Objectively Great Voice, but that’s about 10% of why she’s among the best rock singers today. Every phrase on the band’s new album, “Painted Shut,” is a challenge: of her own physical and emotional limits, of listener expectations, of genre convention. And the four-piece Hop Along has burst out of Philly, riding the Alabama Shakes wave of big-hearted American storytelling, into an arena finally big enough for Quinlan’s jagged voice to fly.
The music that Hop Along plays is essentially rock n’ roll, with grimy punk and cheery R&B influences thrown in. It sounds like music of the heartland, and appropriately there are shoutouts to locales across the country: Louisiana and West Virginia, Texas to the Twin Cities. Each song is a chronicle of, and an ode to, the American Experience. But this is not grand Bruce Springsteen proselytizing. This is an intensely focused diary of the mundane and the minute, of the joy and anguish that spills out of the everyday.
“8:45 a.m. / The dream just escaped me again / Over breakfast I could hear you in the garage,” goes the very first line of the first song on the album, titled “The Knock.” The title alone might be a trigger for “Breaking Bad” fans, and the scene and mood that Hop Along lay out could easily accompany Walter Jr. at the table, plate full of eggs and bacon on a sleepy suburbia morning. But an interruption breaks the reverie: “At the door came the knock,” Quinlan howls, as drummer Mark Quinlan comes to a crashing halt and guitarist Joe Reinhart buzzes out a lone, tension-filled note: surely it’s the aural moment right before wheelchairs exploding, or machine guns in the trunk activating, or the swift swipe of a boxcutter.
Nope, it’s just a Jehovah’s Witness at the door. They come every week, always wanting the same thing. Still, Quinlan is moved to tears and howling—it’s that moment of limbo that’s so deliciously unsettling.
Quinlan’s voice, too, is always in limbo, shifting states, on the verge of sobbing, cracking, moaning, collapsing. It’s calls to mind pieces of Courtney Love’s whiskey-gargling rasp, Brittany Howard’s forceful acrobatics, Debbie Harry’s snarl. It’s not a particularly full voice, but a nimble high wire act, that surfs on the crest of the band’s summery grooves. Quoting lyrics to convey her phrasing is useless, but let me just point you to a few moments of her brilliance: “and my heart just sunk,” on “Waitress;” “don’t be so sad just cause you lost to your old man,” on “Texas Funeral;” “doo doos” over the sparse, dissonant pounding on “Well-Dressed.”
Her trembles, tremors, and whispers necessitate multiple listens. The hooks here are poppy, but decidedly unsticky, and instead slide up and out of your grasp just when you think you’re ready to sing along. Quinlan is singing about events that happen to everyone—from listening to the radio on the commute home to getting side-eye at a restaurant—and with a voice that many singers probably possess. But her gasping, guttural responses set her apart.