Album Review: Hop Along – ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’

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Indie-folk quartet, Hop Along has once again set new precedents for the scene with their third full-length album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Released through Saddle Creek on April 6, the group has outdone themselves again. Exploring a textural playground while giving older fans the classic sound they love, the band has mixed their traditional aesthetic with innovative new instruments, tempo changes, and narratives.

Written in the sum of 2016/2017, and recorded last summer in Kyle Pulley (of Thin Lips) and Joe Reinhart’s (guitarist and former member of Algernon Cadwallader) studio, the band took a new approach on the recording process. Unlike previous releases, they had much more time and an abundance of tools to utilize, which they took full advantage of. Throwing every ounce of energy they had into Get Disowned and rushing to finish Painted Shut, …Dog is the band’s patient and perfected masterpiece.

All self-described perfectionists, they took on various modes of creation. Unlike most groups who aim to center and spotlight the talent of their vocalist, each member worked on writing parts that best displayed their own personal strengths. Almost working as a mash-up, Frances practiced her harmonies in a separate room while Mark Quinlan would come up with interesting drum patterns, Tyler Long full-bodied bass structures, and Reinhart cutting-edge string variations. They then would work to blend and tweak everything together into one cohesive piece. With so many intricate bits to every track, this technique really allowed the album to come to life.

Another important concept was the element of restraint, which echoes throughout. This is the first release from the band void of yelling, screaming, or straining. While Quinlan is known for her unequivocally raw vocals, this is a more serene and clean side of the artist listeners don’t hear as often. Quinlan told Under the Radar Magazine that with Get Disowned,  “we threw absolutely everything at it. There’s a steel drum on that record, and a chicken screaming.” However, every component of Dog was painstakingly sought out. Meticulously editing out any bit that didn’t directly contribute to the mood of each track, there wasn’t a need to go over the top.

First track and hit single, “How Simple” sets the tone. Featuring backing vocals by Chrissy Tashjian, of Thin Lips, and a resounding drumbeat from Mark Quinlan, the album begins in classic Hop Along fashion. Not straying far from their traditional sound, listeners are eased into a new experience. While Quinlan’s signature one-punch lines are sprinkled throughout the album, the chorus rings out, “don’t worry, we will both find out just not together.” One of many lyrics to get stuck in your head for days. Coming out the gate with an emotional whirlwind of intimate verses paired with indie-pop driven riffs, it is an astounding introduction. As the work progresses, fans are welcomed on a journey of maturity and growth.

Pushing boundaries, there are various distinct sounds throughout. Reinhart displays his mathy roots, with infectious twinkly riffs that are featured heavily in, “Somewhere A Judge” and “One That Suits Me”. While orchestral strings resemble strong folk influences, reflected by Quinlan’s love for artists like Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco, especially in standout tracks, “How You Got Your Limp” and “What the Writer Meant”. There are also strong pop based hits that are just straight up jammy and shoulder-shimmy inducing, seen in “The Fox in Motion”.

Third track, “How You Got Your Limp” introduces this new use of strings, principally violin. It features delicate plucks, calming whistles, and an extremely vivid personal narrative that displays the band’s folky sound with the addition of mature, inventive elements. Flowing into “Not Abel”, the album breathes a new essence of liveliness. Feeling almost broadway worthy within itself, Quinlan’s vocals teeter on a tightrope. An unbelievable balance paces as the listener tunes in, and cannot pull away.

A common theme of conquering is heard throughout the album as Quinlan pushes to gain her agency. Repeatedly questioning a world that has forced many to be judged on the presence of false and fake standards set by men. Some moments feel historical and nostalgic while others are extremely contemporary and personal. A battle against hierarchical structures, reflected not only lyrically, but instrumentally with patterned drum hits, and twangy bass licks.

One line that represents this concept particularly is repeated a couple times throughout, “so strange to be shaped by such strange men.” In a Stereogum interview Quinlan expressed, “there’s an anger at realizing the language I lacked… to express myself and see value and power in my expression rather than deferring to men for my value and worth.” Taking control and inspiring others to do the same, there is power in self-realization. While not every track is a diary entry, each holds unique introspection.

While Quinlan’s songwriting can often seem abstract, she focuses on creating vivid images for listeners. “Look of Love” is a great example of her unique style of storytelling. The track begins very distant, slowly becoming more clear and lush as it progresses. Lo-fi and fuzzy her voice softly buzzes with a gentle acoustic guitar, “Jane Austen in the hospital / Your handwriting on the legal pad was barely legible / Waiting, I wonder if I could go all the way back”. Blossoming then into a rich culmination of sound, the track grows. There are various points of climax and relief complimenting this peculiar narrative throughout the entirety of the album.

What is so special about this release is the aspect of complexity without over complication. Listeners can easily consume the work while treasured jewels are noticeably hidden throughout like easter eggs. Ever-changing riffs and snare traps work to constantly pull listeners back in. There isn’t a stale moment.

Final track, “Prior Things” is the absolute pinnacle of the album and an impeccable stand-out. Giving very strong Freshman Year vibes with all of the new instrumental techniques and layers utilized in the making of this album, it is a true testament of what it means for a band to grow into a new sound. Replicating the ordinary is mundane and creating something entirely new feels wrong. Hop Along has mastered the concept of maturing without selling fans short of what got them falling head over heels for the band in the first place.

This is one of the best, if not the best, albums released so far this year. With all the folky elements that created their signature sound and endless new textural techniques, there is something new and exciting to be found with every listen. Even for new fans of the group, this is a great starting point. It is almost impossible to release a third album that surpasses previous work while still staying true to yourself, but Hop Along did it.

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Emily Kitchin | @deathnap4cutie

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