Don’t get me wrong: Hop Along is one of the best bands in the business. But what would Hop Along be without Frances Quinlan’s distinctly shrill vocals and unparalleled, witty songwriting? On Tuesday, Frances Quinlan announced her first solo record, Likewise, out January 31 on Saddle Creek, and shared its first single, “Rare Thing.” The track feels fantastical because it was inspired by a dream, and though it is, admittedly, about Quinlan’s relationship with her baby niece, there’s a universality to her declarations of selfless love. It’s a typical Quinlan move – to lull us into a sense of comfort as her vocals lilt around the melodic plucking of a harp, only to drop a truth bomb on us when we least expect it: “There is love that doesn’t have to do with/taking something from somebody.”
Quinlan’s solo work isn’t unfamiliar compared to Hop Along, which makes sense, since bandmate Joe Reinhart engineered the record at Philadelphia’s Headroom Records. But there’s a certain sense of creative freedom and urgency on “Rare Thing.” Her solo project gives her room to veer away from the structure of a rock band – the baggage of its guitars and drums – and experiment with something more stripped down. It’s not unlike her live performance of Hop Along’s “Happy to See Me,” off of the band’s 2015 record Painted Shut (usually, Quinlan’s three bandmates will leave the stage for her to perform with just her guitar). Only this time, rather than just performing acoustically, she’s able to explore other instrumentation, incorporating synths, harps, and what sounds like a drum machine.
This isn’t the first time Quinlan has worked without a full band. After her first year at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), she wrote and recorded Freshman Year (2005) as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. Though she was just a teenager when she released her first freak folk album, the low-budget project took on a digital life of its own, amassing such a cult fan base that Saddle Creek put out a vinyl reissue of the LP in 2015, its tenth anniversary. Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield even has a tattoo on her arm of the Freshman Year album artwork: a surreal and somewhat indiscernable doodle, which looks like a goose wearing an oversized chef’s hat and apron.
Given her schooling at MICA, it’s not surprising that Quinlan makes all of Hop Along’s album art. When I wrote about her artwork for She Shreds in 2015, Quinlan said, “There’s going to be a point when my voice goes, and I’m not going to be able to tour anymore, but I think I’m going to have painting in my life forever.” So it’s exciting to see her painterly touch on the promotional materials for Likewise – Quinlan’s press photo looks like it’s taken in an art studio, and the album’s cover is almost undoubtedly of her own making. The limited edition pre-order of Likewise – which sold out within hours – even includes two signed screen prints.
Like her music, Quinlan’s artwork is beautifully incoherent. Something feels off-kilter, though her work – visual and aural – creates a sense of ease. The intimacy and overflowing wordiness of her songwriting feel like a friend who’s so eager to tell you a story that she has to stop to catch her breath; likewise, the paintings and screen prints that crop up on Quinlan’s Instagram are as soothing as they are frenetic: in the image below, the earthy landforms seem to morph into animals the longer you look, like an optical illusion.
Like her paintings, “Rare Thing” gains more depth the longer you listen – what at first sounds like it could be a Postal Service song ends up evolving into something more artful, with bassy riffs and melodic strings dancing through the song. Frances Quinlan’s music – whether solo or with Hop Along – demands close attention, and it’s a joy to sink deeper into her fantastical, cluttered world.