“I tend to put everything into the completion of these albums,” Frances Quinlan, vocalist and guitarist for the Philadelphia band Hop Along, comments about Bark Your Head Off, Dog. It is the third full-length from the group and their second on Saddle Creek Records, set for release on April 6. For Quinlan and company, every album is a defining piece for them, and Quinlan even admits that recording is a risky thing for her to take on. “It’s such a rewarding experience, but it is painful—I can fall apart in the studio,” the vocalist reveals.
It’s easy to see why. Hop Along’s blend of dark and personal lyrics are intertwined with tense compositions, often finding a place to resolve with driving drums, tender melodies, groovy bass lines, and sliding guitars. While Quinlan’s vocal prowess helps her quickly float between pitches and different vocal inflections, the music behind her is masterfully intricate. “We were playing together. We were really playing together,” Quinlan explains about the process of writing Bark Your Head Off, Dog. “We wanted to not worry about the live performance of these songs. We wanted to give them everything they needed, and because we approached the songs in general with more restraint, it allowed more room to come through.”
This approach to songwriting required extra focus, because of Hop Along’s desire to make a true studio album. With this came incredibly detailed orchestrations, like the solemn whistle that carries through “How You Got Your Limp.” Quinlan trembles through the lyric, “I can’t heal / I can’t do anything.” Plenty of violins help back the part, but the fluttering string arrangements in the closer, “Prior Things,” paints the room with immediacy, gently swaying with the listener through Quinlan’s highly personal imagery.
Hop Along songs center around topics that ground them, but Quinlan takes the songs in different directions as she writes. The lyrics on Bark Your Head Off, Dog discuss the thematic conception of relationships, memories the vocalist shares with her family, and the interesting power dynamics of humanity—again, the central idea of relationships. “The Fox In Motion” takes the listener through the eye of Quinlan as she magnificently dances through her vocal lines, shifting between different vocal patterns with ease. The song is charged by her brother Mark Quinlan’s powerful drum lines. The steady march of the verses leads into a rolling chorus with plenty of intricate parts in which the kit is shocked to life by his playing.
Setting the tone for the new record is “How Simple,” a delicate and infectious opener that urges listeners to sing along to the sound of a simple heart, spilling out over a drink. This song is more straightforward, driven by the finale of vocals conveying the emotionally exhausted idea of separation for the greater good. “I was trying to be as universal as possible,” Quinlan states. The bass of Tyler Long lends a surging vigor to the tune, keeping the lows together but burrowing through with a pulsing groove.
“Not Abel” is an eerie trudge of acoustic guitars and strings, blooming with plenty of background melodies and instrumentation. It’s this extra added care that takes Bark Your Head Off, Dog into another world for Hop Along. As the song comes to a grinding halt, guitarist Joe Reinhart and the rest of the band surge into a new tempo full of that unique Hop Along twang, with a swinging guitar solo and brilliant vocal shining above and beyond the wonder of the dark opening.
Quinlan’s willingness to touch on ugly subject matter brings certain songs more life. “Somewhere a Judge” feels ajar and perplexed. “It’s a very conflicted song—I don’t know if I like the speaker personally,” the lyricist admits. “I thought about time passing and this wasteful passing of time. When we’re comfortable, we can easily waste time. I was thinking about being on the phone with a loved one and wasting their time talking about nothing.” The lyrical brevity punctuates a bunch of little moments, from working in the back of a retail shop in the dark to receiving an accidental phone call from someone in jail to witnessing a fire on the El train in Philly. Musically, “Somewhere a Judge” moves with a jagged syncopation, wrapping the song in guitar leads.
The apex of Hop Along’s newest record is “The One That Suits Me.” The song is influenced by the Mother of All Bombs—the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S.’s arsenal—and includes the line, “The mother of them all, she is just about to fall / In the history of man, reality is softened.” Quinlan was inspired by her own research into World War I. “There’s a part where some general was talking about ‘[of] course he is for peace,’” she recalls from her reading. “That’s the people who ruled world—I mean, men ruled the world. Thus, the lyrics, ‘Century turned, your old man stumbles in and says / “Of course I am for peace, the one that suits me.”’ It’s probably the most political song I have ever written.” Quinlan also cites a discussion of the Cold War from the podcast “Hardcore History,” in which the host Dan Carlin likened people’s ability to ignore the constant fear to having “a gun to your head. You forget that it’s there, [but] that doesn’t mean that it is not there,” she explains.
While initially playing this track, Quinlan recalls going into a trance, because it was the first time she felt totally right doing something. “The thing that I always find daunting about recording is that feeling of being defined in a moment by your performance,” she says. For someone so hyperaware of her performance as a mark of permanence, Bark Your Head Off, Dog was a revelation. Quinlan reflects, “To even come close to saying what I think we all meant to say—it’s quite a feeling.”