Songs for Babes is the third release from the fledgling new label MIE Music, which last year brought us the blissful sounds of Ohio’s Trouble Books. Talons’ is the solo moniker of one of Trouble Books main players, and guitarist for The Six Parts Seven, Mike Tolan. His band’s UK debut The United Colours of Trouble Books, and recent follow up EP Endless Pool, were insular pieces of sweet reflection clouded in tape static and swells of ambient instrumentation. It was a record to be enjoyed in quiet solitude, ears protruding from under your duvet.
In order to be fully appreciated, some records need to be listened to in a certain way, in a particular environment. Whether that be whilst running through the park, whilst driving to work or whilst drunkenly grinding against a stranger in some morally dilapidated nightclub. Songs for Babes seems as though it were designed to be listened to alone, in your bedroom whilst rain lashes off the window and you reflect on how life hasn’t quite turned out as you thought it would have. Some people may view this as a gutturally depressing experience; many others though will enjoy such pensive reflection. And it seems like Mike Tolan has been doing a lot of reflecting.
This was an album that intrigued me from the moment I heard about it, and I instantly wanted to find out more about it’s conception. The fact that each song is named after a woman in Tolan’s life firmly piqued my curiosity. Why? He explained it in a recent interview, saying that he thought it would be funny to write songs which were entirely specific to his life. Rather than songs which could hopefully be timeless and transcend generational barriers, he wanted to write songs not about the abstract concept of love but about his love, and his world and songs that ought only to make sense to him and those around him. See, this isn’t a record designed to be about the universal themes of disappointment or heartbreak, this is a record about the life of Mike Tolan. So the fact that it covers these topics with such resonance is even more impressive. There’s a startling depth to the songs which is difficult to convey in words, it’s something which really needs be patiently absorbed in order to be fully understood.
The record begins with the sound of birds squawking by the sea front with a delicate piano melody strewn over it, firmly setting the tone for the rest of the album. The majority of talons’ previous output has been predominantly sole acoustic guitar, and this deviation adds a nice range of textures to his sound. With second track Maddy though it becomes clear that the main appeal of the record lies with Tolan’s fragile vocals and painfully honest lyrics; “Getting by has turned to treading water and every day is another weight tied to my legs. I don’t want to be a weight tied to your legs. So if you need some time I’ll wait for you”.
The lyrics are one of the key elements throughout the record, showcasing an adept honesty and awareness of life, of the ever increasing passage of time. Tolan knows how to spin a thoughtful phrase, like on Angela where he sullenly drawls “Sleeping with my hand around your waist and I don’t even know your last name”. They’re lyrics which are easy to relate to, like on Sam where he says “This would be hard if I gave a shit”. It’s phrases like that which help make this the kind of record which you can wrap yourself up in and forget the world exists, because even for all of it’s lyrical preoccupation with the painful mundanity of modern life these songs come from another place, somewhere internal where outside exists only as a concept rather than an unavoidable reality. And it draws you in to it’s world. In terms of it’s emotive qualities it’s comparative to Elliott Smith, or the quieter moments of Yo La Tengo, such as Damage. It’s incredibly understated.
There are moments where it sparks in to life though, where there’s a palpable optimism surging through the instrumentation, such as when Tolan indulges in a bit of an ambient trance solo towards the end of Sam. This whole track though is oozing with positivity, the repetition of the lyrics “I hope she wins the lottery” are so unashamedly sincere and kind it’s impossible not to grin. These little instrumental flourishes which deviate from the standard acoustic guitar blueprint offer a welcome variety and are used to brilliantly sparing effect. Lending tracks such as Sam a feeling of sprawling grandeur. The subtle mixture of bass, ukulele, electronics and rain drops on Lula is captivating, the way in which they weave in and out of one another, the delicate female vocals which floats in all too briefly only serves to make it all the more beautiful in it’s teasing nature. Again on Taz, subtle female backing vocals are like a fragment of a memory, perfectly colouring the corners of the story Tolan’s lyrics are painting. The track also contains quite possibly the most lethargic sing-along of all time, and it’s glorious, wonderfully conveying the sense of a youthful exuberance beaten down by everyday life.
Songs for Babes is an album for music lovers, the kind of album that Rob Fleming would gush over and drink copious amounts of wine and chain smoke whilst listening to in High Fidelity. Probably whilst composing his list of top five ‘records to drink copious amounts of wine and chain smoke whilst listening to’. It’s beautiful, it’s intimate and it’s honest, maybe most importantly though it’s made by just some bloke. Some bloke you’ve never heard of, but seems capable of placing the most eloquent of phrases on every miserable thought you’ve ever had.
For anybody with even one sentimental bone in their body, I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Beautiful, thoughtful, serene…probably the best solo album 2009 will see.
talons’ on Myspace