Tim Anderson’s project connects on a staggering 1-2 punch.
Header image: Kay Reynolds’ cover art for Able Baker’s two recent singles, “Tornado Alley” and “Helicopter Parents,” are superimposed over a brown background.
There seems to be a tipping point for most musical projects that stick around long enough, when a switch flips and the artist(s) at the center unlock something momentous. On Able Baker’s 2021 release Spiral Bound Songs, anyone who listened to Madison musician Tim Anderson’s project throughout its run could hear that Anderson was unearthing tantalizing terrain. “Helicopter Parents,” Able Baker’s first standalone single of 2022, finds Anderson mastering his craft with conviction.
“Helicopter Parents” jumps out as one of the best tracks of early 2022, in or outside of Madison. From the perfectly balanced opening riff to Anderson’s unvarnished, faintly strained vocals (which bear a notable resemblance to Elliott Smith), “Helicopter Parents” swings between bittersweet and gnashed teeth with abandon. For all of the gentleness laced throughout the track, “Helicopter Parents” doesn’t back away from lacerating moments: the chorus is explosive and the crescendoed, noise-driven bridge is a perfect example of how to weaponize dynamics. Occasionally pitched at a whisper, occasionally at a roar, “Helicopter Parents” is intoxicating at any volume.
Lyrically, Anderson turns in some fine work, musing on the types of mundane conflicts that drive the reputations of the people the title refers to. Using the opening verse to meticulously set up familial conflict, Anderson preempts what makes the song’s chorus so effective. Anderson builds a layer of intrigue into “Helicopter Parents” through small asides that touch on the protagonist’s nerves, opening on a musing over whether or not whatever they’re saying will resonate: “I wonder now, will this get the right reception, told like a funny story instead of a confession?” Following that uncertainty with a meditation on the phrase “not everything dies down with time.” As the chorus’ rousing hook of “helicopter parents won’t stop spinning their propellers” rings out, the familial frustration baked into “Helicopter Parents” boils over, pays off the narrative setup, and creates a memorably staggering moment.
“Helicopter Parents” finds Anderson moving from the Pedro The Lion-esque overtones of Spiral Bound Songs to an approach that more often recalls, again, Elliott Smith circa Figure 8. More importantly, it’s clear on this track that Anderson has found a way to communicate a profound, multifaceted, intangible feeling. Nostalgia, hope, frustration, regret, and contemplative melancholy wrestle in near-harmonic chaos on “Helicopter Parents,” discordant and unplaceable but strikingly familiar nonetheless.
A week after the release of “Helicopter Parents,” Able Baker returned with another strong standalone single, “Tornado Alley.” Both “Helicopter Parents” and “Tornado Alley” were recorded and mixed by Disq’s Isaac Debroux-Slone and Logan Severson, who both play various instruments on “Helicopter Parents.” Debroux-Slone also handles drums for “Tornado Alley,” while Severson stays behind the boards. Neal Jochmann is responsible for most of the synths and keys on “Tornado Alley,” lending a good deal of the song’s immersive texture. Slow Pulp guitarist Henry Stoehr mastered both tracks.
Figure 8‘s more rock-forward moments remain the strongest reference point for “Tornado Alley,” but Anderson still finds a way to make the inevitable comparisons to Elliott Smith feel more like referential influence than reverential recreation.
Whip-smart, hooky as hell, and showing off newfound muscle, “Tornado Alley” proves that the peaks Able Baker ascended to on “Helicopter Parents” weren’t a fluke. Stormy and whirlwind, “Tornado Alley” lives up to its title, delivering one of the strongest pieces of narrative writing Anderson’s committed to record: “Who can I confide in? Tell ‘I hate my life’ to? While I’m still young and can do something about it.” Anderson’s writing in “Tornado Alley” shares a good deal with the plaintive, ennui-laden half-plea-half-declarations Dylan Baldi penned for Cloud Nothings’ 2012 breakout Attack On Memory. Ten years after Cloud Nothings made that head-turning artistic leap, Able Baker’s making one of its own.
Kicked off by a brooding, mid-tempo acoustic riff, “Tornado Alley” soon erupts into a darker, concise mesh of convincingly frustrated instrumentation and fittingly muddy tones. There’s a bleak atmosphere that propels the emotive heft of “Tornado Alley” which pays massive dividends in the track’s raucous final quarter, which is the most intentionally punishing 100 seconds of the project’s discography. Able Baker’s brains have always been an evident part of the project’s equation, but the brawn’s never been more noticeable, or more appealing.
Both “Helicopter Parents” and “Tornado Alley” are immediate, powerful triumphs from a project settling into a realization of its own power. Able Baker has a short spring tour coming up, ending with an April 22 show at the High Noon Saloon. If Able Baker’s live setup can convincingly approximate the level of outsize force conjured up by “Helicopter Parents” and “Tornado Alley,” that show will be worth prioritizing.