Top albums 2015 advent calendar: Day 20
Hop Along - Painted Shut
When I first saw Hop Along's Frances Quinlan I was struck by how surprisingly diminutive she is in stature, since I had only known her from her rasping, throaty and blustering vocal prowess that she brings to her music. But then, when further considering her lyrics, I decided maybe it's not that surprising; she writes as through the eyes of someone often left unnoticed and keenly observing from a corner, picking up every meaning in every little detail. It's this combination of the astute onlooker and powerful performer that makes Quinlan a ,musical force.
Through this magnificent capability she's penned a set of 10 songs that unfold like key scenes in the dramas of daily life. We start at the beginning of the day ("8.45am, the dream just escaped me again") and are immediately taken into a breakfast scene with the aroma of coffee in the air, your feet comfortably slippered, breakfast in preparation - only to be interrupted by Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on the door - announced by the album's first (but certainly not last) clamouring riff and punchy hook. The annoyance at the abrupt disturbance is quickly turned on its head when, upon opening the door, you're blinded by the beauty of the youthful person on the doorstep radiating through our bleary early-morning eyes. It's an extremely simplistic moment but makes a song so full of life and humanity - and this is just the opening!
The songs vary from the personal to the legendary, with plenty of humour and horror along the way. Further on through the album we have the story of jazz legend Buddy Bolden who had a breakdown in the middle of a performance and had to be institutionalised ("Buddy In The Parade"), the awkwardness of having to serve someone who clearly despises you ("Waitress"), the conflicting feelings of being "the only other adult around" when seeing a father physically abuse a child ("Powerful Man") and the rambling thoughts that can be triggered upon seeing your doppelganger working in a restaurant ("I Saw My Twin"). A song with the seemingly dour title "Texas Funeral" is a wry tale of cowboys determined that they'll never die, while the seemingly cheerily title "Horseshoe Crabs" is told from the perspective of American folk singer Jackson C. Frank, who never achieved popularity in his lifetime, leading into a depression that precipitated an untimely death, half-blind, from pleumonia. It's a real mixed bag.
Throughout this, Quinlan's voice is twisting and soaring in moments of grace and then rasping and throaty in moments of pure passion or shame. The band backs her up with some resplendent and vital pop-punk songs. They never steal focus from the message but take guidance from their dynamic leader, producing robust plumage for the vocals - taking their opportunities to branch off into tumultuous power chord conclusions. There are many moments on Painted Shut that provide that brief stomach lurch of going high-speed over an unexpected bump, only to catch you safely and smoothly on the other side, leaving you with quite a rush.
However, perhaps the most remarkable (and probably my favourite) song on the album is "Happy To See Me," which features almost solely Quinlan singing and playing acoustic guitar. She plaintively strums and mulls over a series of stressful and conflicting occurences that have happened in her recent life. She then takes us onto her train ride home, placing us next to her as she stares out the window and dreams about growing old;
"On the train home I am hoping that I get to be very old / and when I'm old I'll see only people from my past / and they will all be happy to see me... / we all will remember things the same way"
She repeats that last line 16 times, growing ever more frantic in her playing and singing, as if just through sheer will she can make it into reality. It's a very simple idea, but one that speaks to the very core of the human condition; about how we wish we could change the past, or know how we appeared in someone else's eyes, or have a clearer understanding of why things happened the way they happened. Accompanied by a delicate harp plucking at her heels as she undauntedly repeats the phrase again and again, you can hear all the anguish and contemplation in her voice as she once again ponders this reality from every painful perspective. It's just one fantastic fragment from an album that is a rich tapestry of them.
Have I bought this album?: Got it at their fantastic gig at the Garage in November. Can't wait to see them again and take some people with me to share in the joy!
Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect
Protomartyr are often saddled with the idea that they make "serious" music; even if you've never heard of them, just looking at the album cover and title, combined with the band name, would probably give you those suspicions. It's not something that the band is afraid to hide from either, and on The Agent Intellect we get songs about the devil, starvation, family death and decay, irresponsible parents and beyond. But, crucially, the band absolutely understands the best way to get these bleak messages across to an audience in ways that make them become affiliated with the people in them, and relate to them.
This is done with no small amount of dark humour thrown in, like shafts of cold grey light piercing the gloom. Opening track "The Devil In His Youth" demonstrates this well; part urban myth, part human character study, the song describes exactly that of its title - not a particularly pleasant man in theory, but someone who is simultaneously sympathetic as "when he came of age, it was nothing like the simulated game, the women didn't love him, the races all ignored him, his proclamations failed." On the song "I Forgive You" singer Joe Casey despotically repeats "The eyes of Kayrouz are upon you," making you feel like you're under the omnipresent and judgemental gaze of an obscure and destructive God - but it turns out Kayrouz is just an accident and injury lawyer whose face adorned many billboards around the streets of Detroit. The loser anthem "Dope Cloud" turns a picture of poverty into beautiful dejectedness: "the dope cloud that's descending all over this town is throwing gold dust into the pockets of the underserving: and I'm wrung out."
Through all this the band are presenting an absolute tour-de-force of post-punk/post-hardcore brilliance. The rhythm section ruthlessly switches between militant, lock-stepping grooves and careening, nose-to-the-ground blustering. The dual guitars bend and contract around each other in moments of luminescent, wire-walking tension, then calcifying into sledgehammers of sound at the precisely planned moment of detonation.
These dynamics give the stories told by Casey a hair-raising edge. On the song "Uncle Mother's" he takes us into a seedy local watering hole, welcoming us with a smile and "Welcome to Uncle Mother's - are your children in the car?" He takes us around the gaunt, soulless faces in the bar before the band raises the tension by jangling on our very nervous systems as Casey tells us "something evil is thinking in the dark: 'in here, it's cold by law'." When Casey wants to spew a spluttering list of mixed-and-matched furies and worries, fully inhabiting the titular character of "The Hermit," the band provides a gale-force of torrential punk that pushes the maddened cries to the edge of sanity. "Why Does It Shake?" is a quote taken from Casey's mother as she struggles to comprehend her Alzheimers, and in the song Casey takes us through his own bodily functions, puffing them up like he's immortal. However, the genuine fear of inevitable death lurks in his proclamations, only to fully amplify into soul-sucking terror when the guitars ratchet up into scything riffage and Casey desperately proclaims "Never gonna lose it! Never gonna lose it!"
The Agent Intellect is more than a mere collection of 12 tyrannically excellent post-punk songs, but an Album in the grander sense. The band has put plenty of work into the perfect sequencing, seguing the tracks together subtly and ensuring that there can be no moments of boredom throghout. This consistency of thought helps to bring to life the essence of the streets of Detroit, even though I've never been there. Through Protomartyr's songs I have a good idea of their habits, desires and faults - some of which are unique and many are universal, but all are fascinating, especially when they're chewed up and spat out in an uncompromising glob of intense emotion and music like The Agent Intellect.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, after just one listen to this album I happened to see it in Rough Trade and I knew I already loved it so I got it. It's on very cool translucent green vinyl.