The whole idea behind releasing or performing a cover is to add your own spin to it: Otherwise, what’s the point? But rarely does an artist deconstruct and completely transform a beloved song to the extent that Frances Quinlan does with “Carry the Zero,” the Built to Spill classic that landed at number two on Paste’s best songs of 1999 list.
It’s quite incredible that Quinlan managed to make the song so unrecognizable that I listened to the whole thing without even realizing it was a cover of the legendary Boise, Idaho indie band’s biggest hit. The words “I’m not knocking,” even when spoken out of context, will get “Carry the Zero” stuck in one’s head for hours. Quinlan’s ability to bend the track to her will—featuring a bouncy synth later complemented by twisted, harsh guitar screeches—is ingenious and indicative of Quinlan’s ability to experiment outside of her main sound. It’s one of many moments on Likewise that prove not only that her solo career deserves to exist, but also that she’s able to thrive without her longtime bandmates (or at least without them in their full roles).
Hop Along actually began as a solo project in the mid-2000s, but by the time the band started to take off with 2012’s Get Disowned, it was a full outfit, complete with Quinlan’s brother Mark on drums, bassist Tyler Long and multi-instrumentalist Joe Reinhart, who has produced each of their records since. With each Hop Along release, as Quinlan mentioned in her recent Paste session, the four members act as a collective, workshopping the songs together after the demo stage.
But on Likewise, Quinlan hashed everything out with just Reinhart in the studio, giving the tracks more space to breathe than ever before. Most of the songs here feel a bit rougher around the edges, which is partly what gives them so much charm. Quinlan has long had one of the best voices in indie rock, so why not essentially subtract everything else and give it 100 percent of the spotlight?
Her voice is especially front-and-center on Likewise opener “Piltdown Man.” Backed by just simple keys, Quinlan’s voice does all the heavy lifting, propelling the song along through sheer will. Detailing a story about getting locked out of the house while chasing a dog, she admits it’s just a random memory from her past: “Moments raging though / So very small, like this.”
These minuscule snapshots make up the eight original songs on the record, little remains from here and there. Rarely are Quinlan’s lyrics complete thoughts, but they don’t have to be: They paint a schizophrenic picture, frequently wordy, occasionally dark and regularly tough to follow, but comforting nonetheless. Take “Your Reply,” perhaps the best Belle & Sebastian-indebted song since Voxtrot released “Start of Something,” which opens with a touching sentiment (“Somebody wrote ‘tender’ in the novel’s margins / As if to remind about a precious force”) before a gruesome stanza (“In the next paragraph, the protagonist / Sat down on the belly of a dead horse / The author I read fell from a window many stories high / Stretching out to feed pigeons or a stray cat depending on the website”). The second verse juxtaposes a nice dinner in an abandoned garden with people who were killed for stealing eggs in wartime. Quinlan’s mind goes in many different directions at once, but we’ll gladly follow her down each rabbit hole.
There isn’t much of a musical through line throughout Likewise, either, as Quinlan frequently alternates between shimmering synth tracks (“Rare Thing,” “Detroit Lake”) and delicate acoustic guitar songs (“A Secret,” “Went to LA). But it never feels tough to keep up. This is a record filled with little surprises here and there, whether it’s the strings on “Lean” or filtered, demo-like vocals on “Now That I’m Back,” giving way to a full-on dance party emerging out of seemingly nowhere.
Likewise is a record full of little, unrelated moments that manage to create a world of their own when put together. That world isn’t always pleasant—it’s often an anxious and distressing one—but it’s also full of vivid color and meticulous detail. The whole record is best exemplified by the words Doug Martsch wrote years ago that Quinlan completely repurposed in 2020: “We found the pieces, we counted them all alone / Didn’t add up, forgot to carry a zero.” The pieces don’t always add up here on her solo debut, but that’s OK: The journey Quinlan takes to get to that point is what makes this record so special.
Revisit Frances Quinlan’s Paste session: