WVAU's #5 Album of 2015: "Painted Shut" by Hop AlongBy Eli Fosl | 27/12/15 4:00pm
Courtesy of Rolling Stone
The second record from Philly rock band Hop Along starts with an awakening, with a dream immediately tugged away from consciousness in the early morning. From there it moves discordantly, but assuredly. From story to story, from paradox to paradox, it never stops to let us realize what it is we’re becoming so addicted to in this music.
A paradox is a crucial element for progress on both a personal and a communal scale. Honestly it’s paradoxical that I’m writing this review, and even more paradoxical that, looking back, the album I maybe enjoyed most frequently from 2015 was Painted Shut. I’ve never been shy about my general disinterest in indie rock and rock in general. As far as glacially stagnant genres go, rock is the whole polar ice cap with a cherry on top. With a few standout exceptions –including the stellar debut from Hop Along themselves— most of the genre’s albums of the last few years have been, in a word, boring. So really, it’s undeniable that Painted Shut blindsided me.
A lot of EOTY lists and general consensus reviews have called this album an emo album. “An emo album but with a really good lead singer,” more or less. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs on why this isn’t right, but suffice to say that to shove this record under the poor, tattered blanket of “emo” is to miss the most integral elements of what makes it a triumph.
While the classic emo –and often indie rock in general—record is a suburban outcry from a confused middle class, Painted Shut definitively and definitely exists in the working class. The songs move from place to place, always finding grounds in a character belittled and frustrated with the confrontation a nameless order of antagonism. Take the very first track, “The Knock,” which immediately explodes with staccato guitars and lead singer Frances Quinlan’s timeless, already routinely worshipped vocals. The hook for this song, one of the catchiest pieces of this entire catchy album, has been stuck in my head for probably the better part of the past 6 months and still I have little grasp on its exact meaning, anyone who tells you they do is lying. The characters portrayed by Quinlan are palatable and faceless, easily attached to any numbers of meanings and stories, but their significance and impact never ceases to shine through the lyrics.
Another prime example is –perhaps my favorite track on the album—the stellar “Powerful Man,” which tells a tale of abuse witnessed by a paralyzed narrator. While the track’s story is thorough and direct, the lyrics still leave room for attached meanings and interpretations. “I just thought he looked like a powerful man.”
Painted Shut finds more of a footing in alt-country and Americana than emo. The closest likeness to Quinlan’s voice and storytelling I can imagine often quivers between Lucinda Williams and Over the Rhine. Just take one listen at “Horseshoe Crabs,” the piano-led ballad that’s poetry soars over almost honky-tonk attitude from the instruments, reconstructed into a modern indie rock framework. Still, it’s undeniable that the band takes firm hold of one of emo’s –and, admittedly, pop-rock’s— most crucial elements: the hook.
Track after track this album demonstrates the most illustrative and appetizing-to-all choruses and refrains from 2015, while still keeping touch with the abstraction and depth that makes them so great. The best of these refrains comes on the record’s most somber slow-burners, when Quinlan rasps and screams over and over, “we all will remember things the same.” Will we? Most people on the street would most likely think that we would all remember things quite differently, but Painted Shut does little if not challenges us. It’s in that challenge, in the forced expansion of what can be expected of music like this, that makes the record so powerful.
There are songs here that have guitars and production that sound straight out of arena-rock. The lead single, “Waitress,” starts off with sounds reminiscent of the very worst of Kings of Leon, yet still manages to build and appropriate these sounds into something raucous yet together, into actually tangible guitar solos and danceable drum patterns. Even when she takes the spotlight like a real God-born popstar, Quinlan never stumbles into strict egoism, her tales are never quite definitely autobiographical, but instead they encompass a totality of stories and identities, fluid in their accessibility but never spilling a drop of what makes them electrifying and unique. There is no rock album from any catalog of the past decade that can be listened to, front to back, so pleasantly and easily.
So here we are, 8:45 again. So far in this short review I’ve mentioned emo, guitar solos, alt-country, pop egoism, and arena rock guitars. Yet, somehow still, I can’t help but admit that I’m talking about one of the most expressive, progressive, and perfectly fun albums from 2015. It is definitely one that will stick with me the longest for the foreseeable future. Can you believe it? Someone wake me up. I must be dreaming.