by Zoey Knox
Fresh from a decade of success as a member of a band that began as her solo project, Frances Quinlan is striking out on her own again, this time with her name on the album cover. Likewise, released on Jan. 31, 2020, is Frances Quinlan’s solo debut. Quinlan found her voice as the lead songwriter and front person for indie darlings Hop Along. Together with Hop Along bandmate Joe Reinhart, Quinlan incorporated new uses of synthesizers, strings and digital instruments into her familiar guitar-heavy sound. In the tradition of solo debuts, Likewise is a personal, poignant look into the mind of a singer some listeners may feel like they already know.
Quinlan’s genius lies in her ability to create pictures in your head as bright and fuzzy as memories from childhood. She demonstrates this skill early in the album’s lead track, “Piltdown Man,” a reference to the fraudulent fossil crafted from human and ape bone fragments in 1912. Quinlan produces images of childhood play with lines like, “6 a.m., so loud your mom had to kick us out / We ran the wheelbarrow around and around.” Her writing is very sweet, but never naive; she sings with the sureness of someone with a perfect recollection.
The album reads like someone is telling you a story: it deserves your full attention or you’ll miss the little details that make it interesting, like the word “orangutan” sung softly in the middle of a line. The devil is truly in the details, and this album makes terrible background music. Likewise deals in minute aspects, not grand situations. Quinlan’s writing is unfussy and riddled with specificity: quotes from conversation, names and stark images like “she had on that white uniform.” Even comments on the grand subject of love are clear and simple: “I know there is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody.” In “Your Reply,” Quinlan combines sweet and dark images to create an odd point of interest: “Somebody wrote “tender” in the novel’s margins / As if to remind about a precious force / In the next paragraph, the protagonist / Sat down on the belly of a dead horse.” The rhyming lines let you guess what’s coming next, but Quinlan’s narratives still have a sense of the unexpected, allowing the listener to discover which way the story will go.
As a whole, the album is made of on-consecutive pages from the same book, made distinct by the sounds that accompany each story. Lyrics aside, the first few songs on Likewise could sound queasily cheerful, but the synths introduced in “Rare Thing” create a change in mood and ground the light tracks that come before it. In “Detroit Lake,” electronic sounds add texture to Quinlan’s earnest voice and bright guitar. Sparse use of percussion across the album makes these components that much more powerful when they come through.
In “Went to LA,” drums support Quinlan’s voice as it breaks and bends, alternately whispering and screaming her way towards the end of the song. In the chorus, she harmonizes on the repeated line “Heaven is a second…” and it is not until the last seconds of the song that the instruments drop away and Quinlan sighs into the rest of the line: “Heaven is a second chance.” The emotional impact of the last line is characteristic of the tiny emotional punches Quinlan throws across the work. At other times, her voice sounds processed, as if you’re hearing her distantly through the telephone. Quinlan’s ability to make you feel both very close to her and incredibly far away is astounding.
She captured our minds as the driving force being Hop Along, and Likewise proves that she is not ready to let go of the reins. Likewise is an intelligent, thoughtful work from an artist who knows herself as intimately as she knows her craft. Frances Quinlan is back, and ready for us to call her by name.