Quinlan’s first solo album is nonetheless a solid entry into one of the best bodies of work in contemporary indie music.
Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlan has long been considered one of the finest singers of her generation. Her wild, raw yelps punch a hole through the mannered detachment of so much indie rock, lending the band’s music a bluesy edge that makes their revved up folk-punk sound pleading and direct. Hop Along’s punchy loudness is all but entirely missing, however, from Quinlan’s debut studio album, Likewise. A reminder that the singer was a folkie before being folded into brother Mark’s rock band, the album finds Quinlan working in a softer key that foregrounds the unvarnished emotion in her songwriting.
That’s not to say that Quinlan lacks lyrical flourishes. Opener “Piltdown Man” references the notorious hoax about a false evolutionary missing link as a precursor to exploring a nostalgic reverie about a childhood friendship gradually fading. The connection is tenuous, and indeed you might even say the metaphor itself had a missing link, but the exploration of how one constantly circles back to memories, trying to find the exact moment that a relationship changed, embodies the futility of seeking a single explanatory event to chart how time slowly erodes all. It’s the first of several metaphors that run through the album that undercut the largely nostalgic tone with one of regret and loss, a reminder that the most pleasant memories can also be the most painful to contemplate.
That underlying wistfulness about complex emotions defines much of the album. “Your Reply,” with its Laurel Canyon brightness, notes loving annotations found in a copy of the novel Closely Watched Trains, a harrowing tale of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. She also references other grim works of art watched with a partner, such as the Disney documentary where filmmakers tossed lemmings to their deaths, only to get distracted by the pleasantness of the Netflix and chill date with “Dinner, by the way, was divine.” “A Secret” is an even sparser acoustic ballad that reflects of a dissolved relationship with lines like “You walk in and out of pain like a tide.” Here, as well as “Detroit Lake,” Quinlan uses minor comparisons to climate change to capture the sense of fatalism in romances that fade away.
Quinlan’s voice retains all of its power here even as it is mostly kept to a reserved croon. The restrained quality of the album’s vocals highlights how Quinlan’s best attribute has always been the tension she layers into her voice. Whether softly beckoning or unleashing a raspy howl, there has always been a shaky quality in her style, like listening to wind buffet a suspension bridge, the cables swaying and turning but continuing to hold the overall structure safe and intact. And when Quinlan does unleash the full power of her voice, as she does on “Went to LA,” she offers a reminder of how overwhelming a vocalist she is, tearing a hole in the album’s gossamer warmth with an anguished howl of longing.
Admittedly, Likewise lacks some of the surprise of Hop Along albums. Songs are mostly set to acoustic guitar and simple backing, though there are exceptions. “Rare Thing” and “Detroit Lake” include mild electronic flourishes that compound the album’s bright sheen, and “Detroit Lake” even has some instrumentation of strings to add to its wistful tone. Otherwise, the focus remains on Quinlan’s evocative lyrics and singular voice. Quinlan has little to prove at this stage of her career, but her first solo album is nonetheless a solid entry into one of the best bodies of work in contemporary indie music.