People keep asking me if I think house shows are extinct. Sweaty basements, close quarters – is it all a thing of the past? The question gives me a pit-of-the-stomach type feel, the kind where you hope you’re wrong, but you just don’t know how anything works anymore. Surprisingly, that question also brings me a little bit of joy, because it reminds me of the first house show I saw after moving to a new city, and particularly of Cry Babe, the transcendent doom-punk trio that closed the night. Cry Babe has been making waves in Portland for a couple years now, so I had the enormous privilege of seeing them absolutely wreck the room. That energy is all over their new album Further Away, which finds the band building complex melodic counterpoint and exploding into punk rock mayhem.
“I Don’t Love You” is a good place to start. The melodic play between the bass and vocals is perfectly punctuated by the drums. The omnichord shimmers above, feeling out the edges of the space. As the vocals punctuate increasingly challenging intervals, there’s a moment of foreshadowing as the bass drops an octave. The beat shifts, becomes driving and nearly takes over, but Cry Babe is a carefully controlled sort of chaos. Even in the outro, where massive chords threaten to subsume, the vocals maintain a haunting harmony.
‘Cry Babe was started because we wanted to make our voices heard. We all had much old trauma we were carrying around and we needed a place to give voice to that. Our music is heavy because our experiences were heavy. The more we believed in ourselves and took our band seriously, the more our confidence grew. First there was nothing, then we were jamming, and pretty soon we were a full on band.’
Cry Babe is a band that claims space and time with urgency and charisma. Every song is a showstopper; whether in the basements of Portland or stages across the northwest, they are impossible to ignore.
‘It took a long time for me to feel this way, but now performance feels like complete release from ego. You can’t overthink so you just don’t think. All instinct. You can spit into your bandmate’s mouth, you can roll around on the floor, you can tell grown men to go to the back or leave. I feel my power the most when I am on stage.’
Power is a recurring theme in their lyrics – songs like “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” or “Johnny,” from 2019’s Be Cool, explore power dynamics in a searing critique of patriarchal, gendered violence. “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” takes its title from a phenomenal 2014 film, whose vampiric protagonist subverts that power dynamic. It’s easy to see why that film is an inspiration: the woman of the title, walking home alone at night, is never far from her own power. In “Johnny”, the narrator finds power in controlling the perceptions of the other characters and the audience (the lyrics include ‘Orgasms loudly and fakely’ and ‘More orgasm sounds ending in disappointment,’ which is exactly how the song sounds). “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” ends with an ambiguous warning: ‘Eyes in the dark / Where I can’t see / Someone’s watching me.’ The cultural context may suggest fear, but the real menace is in the first line, asking if you’re okay to get home.
Cry Babe has been incredibly productive over the last two years, releasing two full-length albums as well as a 7” vinyl release with Drunk Dial Records. The studio encourages bands to have a few drinks and then write and record a song, with a cover as the B-side. Cry Babe describes “A Romance of Many Dimensions” as one of their favorite recordings. For Further Away, they worked with Nich Wilbur at Unknown Studios, whose compassionate approach to production surely allowed the band to push their boundaries so profoundly.
It’s an unusual time to be a band. Virtual performances are starting to take space from live performances, but it is difficult to imagine the virtual performance that could match the thrumming intensity of a Cry Babe show. In the meantime, they are leaning into unusual and experimental sounds, building relationships with collaborators, and using their platform to advocate in support of the civil rights movement of our generation. In addition to an incredible t-shirt run in support of police abolition, Cry Babe has dedicated 15% of all music and merchandise sales in perpetuity to local civil rights organizations, starting with Don’t Shoot PDX. It’s this type of long-term commitment to social justice that builds a community of mutual aid and even reparation. Cry Babe will be building a better world regardless of the form they embrace next.