The first time Frances Quinlan released recorded music for the listening pleasure of a larger community, she did so under the guise of a band. I suppose the curious might have considered the moniker Hop Along, Queen Ansleis to belong to an individual, especially since the material had the straight-from-the-bedroom quality so prevalent among indie popsters in first decade of the century. But then the name was shortened to Hop Along and did become a band proper, with a lineup that included her brother Mark. Three albums were issued, to increasing adoration. Now, Quinlan is back to working through her art largely on her own, and she’s stamped her own name on the result, big and bold. Officially, Likewise is her solo debut.
And it’s a gleaming gem of a debut, at that. Quinlan’s songwriting is crisp and clear, her voice prominent. She signals her vulnerability with the very feel of the record. It comes across as no small matter, no random choice, that the album belongs solely to her by billing. The lyrics keep coming back to the idea of gradually opening up to another person, to allowing them to see a clearer version of the previously hidden self. On the flitting, lovely, and smart “Your Reply,” Quinlan alternates between poignantly clear and slyly cryptic, in each mode able to slip out perfectly crafted lyrics such as “Somebody wrote ‘tender’ in the novel’s margins/ As if to remind about a precious force.” “A Secret” is lean and forceful, and similarly disarming in its offhand eloquence (“It’s been a long time/ Since we argued/ And that argument ended/ You walk in and out of pain like a tide”).
Quinlan makes songs that are delicate and bustling at the same time. “Rare Thing,” with its blipping, racing background and crystalline pop styling, sounds like Robyn producing the Cardigans. And a cover of Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero” is a full-on transformation of the song, maintaining its bulldozer authority while exposing a lighter soul. As if preemptively countering any dismissal Likewise as a precious, fragile thing, Quinlan includes “Went to LA,” which closes with her yelling herself raw, as ruthless to her own being as Polly Jean Harvey at her rawest. Just because music is precise, Quinlan seems to be reminding the listener, doesn’t mean it can’t be tough. And just because it’s taken some time for someone to sign her name prominently to her art doesn’t mean she hasn’t been revealing herself, kindly and graciously, all along.