It seems like I’ve written about Talons’ a lot over the past year or so and because of that fact I feel dangerously close to slipping into gushy fandom territory whenever I try to cover it. Mike Tolan’s project is one of my very favourites, more than just a pretty melody or catchy chorus, the songs feeling like things to hold on to, timely reminders for the slow and sometimes sad day-to-day reality of being alive. So apologies if this review slips into off-topic (or worse self-indulgent) rambling, but at this point I just can’t help it. Work Stories is the third in a series of 4 EPs, and follows the same general themes of Lost Summer and Growing Up. In Tolan’s own words the release is:
“5 Loud Songs, 1 Quiet Song and 1 Interlude about working at a grocery store in the suburbs of a city far from home. Songs about sprawl, fading optimism, losing track of house shows, NPR, etc.”
Opener ‘Work Stories’ has rumbly, reverby guitars and Tolan’s signature vocals, a downbeat, unhurried sense of an apocalypse far more subtle and sly then those we read about in books. That sometimes unshakeable feeling that the world is going to shit:
“There’s trash blowing all around the parking lot,
a PetCo cart on its side on an island of mulch between
the Ulta and the Starbucks:
Is this what the end of the world looks like?
Or is this just life?”
There’s a similar sense of doom and defeat on ‘Rabbit’, a great big rattling thing full of an almost tragicomic sense of disbelief. Take for example the titular rabbit, its presence one of desperate confusion for the narrator. I mean, how are we supposed to save a dying animal when we can’t even decide what to eat for lunch without asking our iPhones for help? The track then moves on to fear of disaster more human, that creeping dread we all feel due to the nightmarish outpourings of 24-hour news channels and an economy that seems to have deserted those of a certain age bracket. “He rode his bike right under a bus / some days this goddamn city’s too much for me” Tolan sings, “so let’s go run away out into the woods /LOL, baby, maybe just grow the fuck up /I’m 31 and wearing a baseball hat to work / drowning in debt with no prospects, living from check to check”. To me those few lines neatly sum up what this Talons’ project is all about, where it’s come from and where it’s going, beamed from what must seem like an endless existential crisis.
Work Stories is perhaps the loudest, most expansive Talons’ record to date. Tracks such as ‘Life in Debt’, with its pulsating electric guitar, and the sad and squally ‘Toms’, sound a world away from the basic acoustic-guitar-and-vocals set up of early releases. The exception that proves the rule is closer ‘Tired of IPAs’ a poignant and meandering acoustic song that reads like an anti-anthem for unhappy millennials, for the hordes of young adults still smarting from the dissipation of all those hopes and dreams, of trying to grow up and become more pragmatic and living in fear of losing more than their childish silliness: “I got tired of irony when I was 28 / Of making fun of everything, realized I actually thought that Fleetwood Mac were great / But when I stopped laughing and tried to ‘grow up’, I just saw the stupid and the sad / And I got cold and lost inside my head.”
Much of the release wrestles with similar thoughts. ‘Had to Work’ is about trying to go out at night to recapture youth only to find the old haunts stripped of their familiar furnishings and up for rent, while ‘Bonnie Billy’ bemoans the fact that no-one at work listens to Bonnie Prince Billy, or have even heard of The Microphones. “But what do I expect?” Tolan sings, “that was over ten years ago”.
If you’ve made it this far you’d be forgiven for thinking that Work Stories is pretty heavy going. And it is in its own way. Rather like its narrator, it’s not an album bursting at the seams with optimism. It explores the pervasive disillusionment in a society that hasn’t yet lived up to what it promised, a society run for interests other than those of the people who make up its majority. A society that offers hopes and dreams of resplendent lives in exchange for your hard earned $$$s, education courses that leave people stranded with more knowledge but no money, opportunities or sympathy. These are songs for people who wonder ‘when did it become not okay to do what I want with my life?’
But the final lines of ‘Tired of IPAs’ offer some hope. If not a remedy then at least a coping mechanism, something to hold onto as you go about your days.
“What am I doing? What am I going to do now at 32 without a plan?
I guess I’ll keep making things
Try to make do
And find goodness where I can”
And I think that’s as close to an answer as we’re going to get. Although it can be sometimes almost impossible, there is still lots to love in this world, a lot of good things to see and do and a lot of good people to help and be helped. Listening to Tolan’s music always feels to me like him leaving a lamp on. It’s never going to erase all those shadows completely, but it sure is nice to see that warm and friendly glow. Work Stories is a reminder that it’s okay to occasionally feel afraid or sad, that the things which trouble you are probably not as much your fault as you think, and most of all that, despite how it might sometimes feel, there are such lamps on all over the place, you are never, ever, alone.
You can get Work Stories as a name-your-price download from the Talons’ Bandcamp page. You can also get a beautiful screen-print of the artwork, designed by Charlie Wagers and limited to 100 hand-numbered prints. I’d seriously consider contributing any way you can. If there is a better release (or series of releases) than this in 2016 we’ll be very lucky indeed.