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‘Late Stage Optimism’ Reminds Us That Musicians Are Workers

Broken Baby's latest offering captures the urgency and message of their live shows.

a portrait of the members of the band broken baby, showing a person wearing a white tank top in the foreground and a person wearing a cubs jersey in the background
Alex Dezen (left) and Amber Bollinger (right) of Broken Baby (PHOTO: Anthony Mehlhaff)

I fell in love with Broken Baby at the first of their live shows I went to. I was absolutely blown away by that show. If I tried to put into words what that experience was like, not only would I fail, but it would read like insane gibberish. All I can say is go see Broken Baby at the first chance you get. I believe they are incapable of playing a bad show.

Late Stage Optimism is their latest offering, and it continues their trend of putting out solid recordings of the songs they rock live. I love it when a band matches their live energy on their recordings, and Broken Baby more than accomplishes that. This record has plenty of examples of their signature sound, but it also introduces some stylistic variations that I haven’t heard from them before. The complex instrumental layering spearheaded by Alex Dezen (guitar) serves as an amazing support for Amber Bollinger’s vocals. The drum and bass grooves are tightly locked in, and when Alex joins in, he fits like a glove. When he plays something that doesn’t match the rhythm section, it adds a layer of ear candy that engages the listener. Amber writes super memorable melodies that will be stuck in your head for days. When I asked Broken Baby what they wanted people to know about the album, they said that while there are some serious and personal topics discussed on the record, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously and you shouldn’t either.

The first song on the record, “Get The Piss Up” is a great example of the signature Broken Baby sound. The driving tom-based groove that starts off the track lets you know what you’re in for from the get-go. The bass and guitar lock in tight with the drums to lead into the verse. After a short break to set it up, Amber lets out a wild scream to start the explosive chorus. This is definitely a party track. After another verse and chorus with a few arrangement tweaks throughout to help keep things interesting, things calm down slightly for the bridge, which then leads into a short, almost soft, interlude that slams into the final chorus. Beyond the fact that each section is great in its own right, I particularly enjoy the small changes to the arrangement throughout the song that keep things from getting stale.

While their normal songwriting process is generally for Alex to find a riff they both like that Amber then adds vocals to, “Hand Heat,” which is one of the more unique songs on the record, was written the other way around. Amber had the phrase “hand heat” in mind as a euphemism for sweaty hands and wanted to build a song around that phrase. This is one of the more personal songs on the album, and it gives the end of the record a nice send-off. While it is certainly a loud track, as I’d expect from any Broken Baby song, it has a soft quality about it that you don’t often hear from the band. The lyrics describe a relationship that is having some trouble, but it would seem there is hope. Despite the serious topic, there is still an element of fun with lyrics like, “I’ve got your hand heat / resting on my chin cheek.”

Another one of the more unique songs on the record, “Cloud Coverage” features a laid-back, bass-led groove that makes you want to sit in a hammock and watch the clouds for a bit. The guitar is mostly atmospheric in the verses with a nice western swing-adjacent melody in the breaks. The chorus is a bit heavier than the verses, but the moment of offbeat guitar chords brings a bit of reggae flavor to the track. Another thing that particularly sticks out is that each chorus has a slightly different transition leading into it; just another example of Broken Baby’s arrangement prowess. The song describes that odd feeling when you should be upbeat, but there is something bugging you that is pulling you down. Definitely a situation that makes me want to sit back, relax, and just let some time pass without thinking about anything.

While I won’t get into the musical aspects of “Madonna’s a Dick,” I do want to highlight it because I think it is a very important song. The song references a quote from a metal head outside of a concert who, when asked about his distaste for pop music, says that phrase. This song takes that quote and spins it into an anthem about being self-assured and getting what you want. The verses deal with the criticisms often leveled against women in the music industry with lyrics like, “I’m so tough / am I not tough enough / am I too sexy, not sexy enough / to be a leading lady.” Knock LA readers are likely all too familiar with the sexism inherent in our society, if not specifically the music industry. This song takes this issue on in a way that others have tried, but much more effectively. The listener gets a sense of what it is like on a personal level, as well as the hypocrisy inherent in these kinds of statements.

While I wouldn’t call Broken Baby a political band — their songs just cover a large range of topics — they don’t shy away from discussing political issues. This record covers a few political topics with “Madonna’s A Dick,” “Die! Die! Die!,” and “Jack White Money,” and their previous record also includes some political songs like “Year Of The Fat Man.” Amber even mentioned that one factor in their forming was their anger and angst during the Trump years. I wasn’t surprised when I asked them about their practice of hiring bassists and drummers, rather than having them as band members. Amber and Alex said that part of their motivation was to pay the musicians they play with, who are all professionals. This is a fairly common practice in the music world, and a reminder that musicians, and all artists for that matter, are workers.

When I asked if they had any final words, they told me that this is the best time to buy music. Obviously, musicians are still missing a large chunk of their income from live shows, but if you can, buying music is a great way to support your favorite musicians, which I hope now includes Broken Baby.

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