"Likewise" by Francis Quinlan
2020--Saddle Creek Records
For anyone who was eagerly awaiting more work from the Philadelphia-based indie rock band Hop Along, it was a pleasant surprise to learn of the release, last October, of the single “Rare Thing” by frontperson and songwriter Frances Quinlan, and the recent release, late in January, of her debut album Likewise. Throughout the album, fans will find a familiar lyrical elegance and the same incredible vocal gymnastics characteristic of Quinlan’s previous work, but it’s almost as if the constraint of being (essentially) briefly bandless has brought Quinlan to new heights of writing. She’s doubled-down on techniques we’ve seen before and broken through to bold new material.
Already a masterful storyteller used to combining the allegorical with references and anecdotes (Hop Along’s song “No Good Al Joad” comes to mind), Quinlan’s new stories “struggle for air”—words she sings herself in “Lean”—fighting as they do for a privacy of their own yet also yearning for intimacy. This conflict is at the heart of songs such as “Piltdown Man,” which opens with a contemplation of the likely fraud Charles Dawson, who may have falsely presented bone fragments as paleoanthropological evidence in 1953. “Why would he do such a thing?” Quinlan asks, singing. Then, immediately, as if a private revelation occurred, “Of course. What a stupid question.” That’s such a hilarious offhanded remark that we quickly forgive that she doesn’t bother to share her thought with us. What happens next is mysterious and beautiful: as if in explanation, or perhaps getting lost in her own private train of thought, she moves to describe a memory with the refrain, “Outside our little tent your dog must have caught something. I followed you both and then I screamed to be let in.” What prompts this anecdote is hidden from us throughout the song, yet we share these details with her and are, in fact, a crucial aspect to the story, considering she addresses the listener as “you.”
There’s an unknown intimacy between narrator and listener. Though we’re kept at arm’s length, both the listener and narrator share the details presented in the song: “Six AM so loud your mom had to kick us out. We ran the wheelbarrow around and around.” With interspersed sounds of children playing in the distance alternating with her singing, she continues, finally singing, “In the afternoon you both fell asleep still knowing more than me.” In a compelling reversal, the narrator believes the “you” listening knew more than her. This subtly poignant and nostalgic song exemplifies the refusal of Quinlan to allow her characters to be fully known or understood. Perhaps Quinlan is driven by a sense that such complete knowledge of another is impossible, but, of course, I would only have my best guess. After all, we can never fully “know” a person, or their motives (e.g., Charles Dawson), despite sharing life details (or details of a song) with them, can we?
Likewise proves a fitting name for this album. Like the Dawson reference and the anecdote that follows it, disparate images, anecdotes, and references relate to, describe, and expand upon one another in oblique and shifting ways. With Quinlan, all you get are bits and pieces. There’s a playful absurdity in her transitions from “documentarians throwing lemmings…over the edge” to “wartime juveniles shot and martyred for the crime of stealing eggs” to finally letting the listener know, “dinner, by the way, was divine,” in the song “Your Reply”. I encourage you to experience the joys of such writing yourself by listening through the whole album, out now with the record label Saddle Creek.
"Juliet" by Juliet
2019 Cellar Records--10 Tracks
Someday we’ll wake up and collectively want to be here. Someday sadness won’t be so temperamental or pervasive. I guess you can call it luck—making it through the day. Or maybe grace. Or the parachute’s deployment. Or the assumption our sun’s gonna come up tomorrow—whatever it is, we’ve got a gimmick to stick between our sock and the sole of our left shoe. Believe this, that when Otis Redding sang try a little tenderness he probably meant something about the failure of a hard heart to do anything but rot. We’ve all been missing someone for years; drunk in a bar never sounds the same as the music saved me ten thousand nights in a row.
I get it, I really do—the propellers stuck to your moon-boots, the way it feels to take your collar off at night. Freedom smells like the first time your mother made apple pie. I wouldn’t mind getting lost with you sings Juliet, in her self-titled debut album, we’ve already missed the exit you and me, we got lost in the song we were singing (“Lost”). Freedom asks of us sacrifice, and perhaps, we’ve been hacking away at parts of ourselves for a future all along. Check the lifeboats, there’s music playing from every boom-box and we’re all singing there’s an endless moment of silence…what will you do if your performance brings you no fame, we have different darknesses but they all haunt us the same (“Silence”). So let’s invite the monsters under our beds onto it and make friends with them, it’s been so long since anyone has loved them—yes, as much as Juliet’s debut album is about growing up and finding your place in the world post-adolescence, it is equally so considering the implications of loving yourself.
Let’s pretend we made Lucy Dacus drink sunshine for a year, this is how we’d go about manufacturing Juliet McCowin, the artist behind the Juliet moniker. A twenty year old from Youngstown, she fronted the Basement Society, a folk group from the same area, before going solo and signing to The Cellar Records, a small production studio and record label based in the region. Vocally reminiscent of the sonic overlap and controlled tremble of a young Taylor Swift, her range and technique closely resemble that of Maggie Rogers, all the while reaching for moments in the lyrics that sound like if Julien Baker wrote happy songs. While a little green and inconsistent on certain tracks, Juliet has moments of closeted intensity aching to edge their way into the music—her timbre and vocal register shine in both “Silence” and “Lost.” She possesses an endearing and genuine vocal quality urging you towards laying back with your feet up or taking a lengthy drive on a backroad at night. When she sings, it feels as if you’ve made a new friend.
While an overall sound project, at times the writing will border on cliché, I’m an open book but you’re illiterate (“Me and You“), I cut off all my hair and you never even noticed (“Me and You”), you unexpectedly came in my life, a different kind of different (“Different”). But these moments are overwhelmed by pointed lyrics overly familiar with grief, like we both know self-pity isn’t a party for long (“Elephants”) or I came in with presuppositions, the scars that you didn’t cause (“Different”), your entire life doesn’t have to be proving a point (“Anymore”).
The album serves as a treatise on growing up and love, but doesn’t shy away from heftier moments—“Elephants,” the best written song on the album, negotiates the relationship with a family member who has just attempted suicide, while other tracks address the singer’s struggles with a brain tumor. Juliet’s songs have solid narrative structure and a meandering eye that finds its way back to the point. Her voice shines on “Silence” and left me wanting more moments like that peppered throughout the project, where her voice rollercoasters between notes with accuracy and tackles more difficult maneuvers. I think Juliet would do well to go for broke and generate larger vocal presentations that elevate before sliding down into a comfortable vocal pocket, these would serve her content well. Yes, there are a few skippable songs, but in its entirety the album is cohesive and impressive for such a young musician’s debut, something to be proud of. I have “Anymore,” “Silence,” and “Elephants” added to my library for perpetuity. What these tracks share is that they stumble upon the fact that what we do on accident hurts. At this age, we’re all learning as young adults to carry conditionality while discovering that the self is a moment-to-moment negotiation we’re unable to run from. Juliet gives us the choice—face the reckoning of self, heart-breaks and all; or start trying to escape.