Bark Your Head Off, Dog more openly embraces the group’s flexibility, matching its compositions with its potential.
Propelled by Frances Quinlan’s glorious, raspy howls, Hop Along instantly stood out among its indie peers with the 2012 breakout Get Disowned and even better follow-up, Painted Shut. Avoiding the straight-ahead noise of punk, but punchier than your average indie group, the Philly quartet flitted between bluesy throwback rock and freak folk via Quinlan’s versatility, suggesting a complexity buried within the band’s ostensibly simple rock. Latest album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog more openly embraces the group’s flexibility, matching its compositions with its potential.
“How Simple” rolls out the album in first gear, Quinlan’s voice cautiously stepping out over brother Mark’s rolling snare. Frances sings about getting older, noting “Could say I am advancing up this road” with just a hint of weary anxiety that speaks to an uncertainty of where exactly that road leads or how long it is. By the time the band arrives the chorus, though, her double tracked vocals espouse hope, singing “Don’t worry, we will both find out, just not together” a self-duet about figuring out the complexities of life without relying on others to do it for you. The normal tension that runs right up at the surface of a Hop Along track is pushed down, still present but mingling with a softer, more reflective side.
That shift in arrangement is even more pronounced on the rest of the album. “Somewhere a Judge” renders funky post-punk in half time, a jerky shuffle that occasionally opens up into sunny, brittle guitar licks and the odd bit of faint squall. “The Fox in Motion” adds synthesized handclaps at the periphery of a palm-muted riff that echoes in negative space before gearing up into rolling, contrapuntal guitar lines. A rubbery bassline anchors these disparate elements into the sound of a chase that befits lyrics obliquely referencing a dark memory. The band even reaches back into Hop Along’s early days with “What the Writer Meant,” updating Quinlan’s solo freak folk with a full instrumentation of twangy guitars, raked percussion and even some elegant touches of fiddle. It would be a downright relaxing number were its lyrics not a macabre, apocalyptic nightmare, with Quinlan’s double-tracked vocals providing a dissonant, paranoid air that punctures the ironic lightness.
The complex, mysterious lyrics epitomized by “What the Writer Meant” signal perhaps an even larger change than the band’s diffuse stylistic evolution. Quinlan’s lyrics have never been quite direct, but Hop Along’s music has always felt fairly grounded in emotional intensity even when Quinlan spins a yarn. But Bark Your Head Off, Dog announces Quinlan as a storyteller of some ambition. “One That Suits Me” externalizes self-doubt with narrative fragments of being hounded for answers and the noting of time’s passage with lines like “Sun is yellow and the ground is moving.” Even a seemingly straightforward track like “Look of Love” surrounds itself with bleary, ominous details like “Jane Austen in the hospital/ Your handwriting on the legal pad was barely legible” and “‘Round 3 a.m., you will come to/ Your roommate’s pissed his sheets right through.” So much of the atmosphere of the album feels light, but the lyrics continuously, brutally brings things down into purgatory.
Through it all, these lofty new breakthroughs in composition and writing are balanced by the constant of Quinlan’s voice, which has a way of making even the most elaborate, abstract bit of dark folk sound like a plaintive address. Though the album pulls back from the punkish force of earlier records, and with it turns down Quinlan’s voice slightly in the mix, the raw power of her yelps continues to have a primal impact, immediately focusing all one’s attention as if triggering some instinctive response. Her vocals are a binding agent, holding together a track like “Not Abel,” which otherwise traverses a folk-pop symphony from a soft acoustic beginning that gradually swells before collapsing in glissandi and re-emerging as clanging ‘90s alternative. Quinlan is absent from the outro, but her ragged voice primes one for the lurch from lush folk to harder rock. At first blush, Bark Your Head Off, Dog sounds like a wild left turn from Hop Along. On closer inspection, it seems that the band is finally catching up to its frontwoman.