Painted Shut is Hop Along’s first release since signing with Saddle Creek Records in 2014, a fitting label for Philadelphian four-piece’s sensitive indie rock. Hop Along’s music draws inspiration from punk, freak-folk, and emo, but there’s no question that lead singer/guitarist Frances Quinlan’s gravelly vocals and arresting lyrics take center stage. On this release, Quinlan’s auteurism ties together what could otherwise be too broad a mix of styles and stories.
Musically, Painted Shut is a more cohesive statement than 2012’s Get Disowned, which swung from dance-punk to acoustic lament a little too wildly, sometimes even in the same song. Shut will remind listeners of iconic late ‘90s albums from bands like Built to Spill, Saves the Day, and Sleater-Kinney. Hop Along brings to mind the bands which made Saddle Creek famous, with melancholy, guitar-driven rock, and lyrics more concerned with vivid storytelling than rhyming.
Per a press release, two of the stories Hop Along tell here have to do with the largely unknown musicians Buddy Bolden and Jackson C. Frank, “who were plagued with mental illness until their penniless deaths.” Cases of mistaken or misunderstood identity are prevalent here; on the energetic “Buddy in the Parade,” Quinlan sings, “I thought you were the king/ You didn’t leave behind a goddamned thing,” while the poppier “I Saw My Twin” opens with, “I saw my twin/ working in a Waffle House.” It’s a record that thoroughly explores money and power, and how our perceptions of the people we think have them can clash with reality.
Although Hop Along’s lyrical content can be heavy at times, Painted Shut’s tracks are well-balanced between catchy indie pop with an edge and more discordant fare. “Powerful Man” tells the story of witnessing someone being hit by their father as a child, an event that leaves the narrator feeling helpless. Even with the upsettingly impotent chorus “I just thought/ he looked like a powerful man,” the song’s upbeat melody will have you singing along in spite of yourself. “Waitress” is a sweeping track that drives Quinlan’s vocals to their Janis Joplin scratchiest, but the clean production serves as a striking counterbalance.
The only downside to Hop Along’s music is that it can be so raw, both vocally and emotionally, that it’s taxing on the listener in large doses. Though Painted Shut only clocks in at 41 minutes total, it feels like a much lengthier record. For fans of Hop Along, that should be just enough. For new listeners, it’s a thorough introduction.