Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits

My connection with Lake Street Dive’s album Bad Self Portraits (2014)  was entirely accidental at first. One afternoon in the Spring of 2014 as I was walking in Midtown, listening to my music on shuffle, I was taken aback by the up-tempo intro and soulful singing of a song that I did not recognize or remember adding to my music, which made me instantly want to start dancing down the street. To this day I don’t know how “You Go Down Smooth” ended up on my iPhone, most likely through a music swap with my roommate at the time, but regardless of how it got there, I’m very glad that it did.

Lake Street Dive is a quartet that met while studying music at the New England Conservatory in Boston. The band is made up of trumpet and guitar player Mike Olson, bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese and vocalist Rachael Price. Beginning their collective career as a dive bar band, they came to the attention of a much wider audience after publishing a casual video filmed on a Boston Sidewalk of the group covering the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, which has garnered over three million views in the last few years. The band’s educational background in jazz music is obvious in this laid-back cover, which is effectively arranged for the small group’s upright bass, trumpet, percussion and lead voice with the three instrumentalists doubling on gospel-style backing vocals in tight harmony . This arrangement style in combination with an authentic, soulful feeling and heavy jazz influence certainly carries over to most of the tracks on their third studio album, Bad Self Portraits but there are a great many other influences at work on this record as well.

While the album is entirely original material, it does draw distinctly from sounds of the past. With predominantly ‘60s era influences from Motown soul and Stax R&B  to British Invasion rock and gospel style blues in addition to Bluegrass and a bit of Country music, there is a wide variety of textures and grooves at work here. The consistent style and authenticity of their deceptively simple sounding arrangements for a few instruments and organic vocals makes the album more a well-curated collection of creativity than a disjointed collection of ideas. The nature of the band is well represented in the title song, which draws on familiar sounds of the past but describes Bassist Bridget Kearney’s feelings about living in a time when selfies and filters create illusions to cover loneliness, a situation that is very specific and relevant today.

The songs that I am most drawn to tend to be the upbeat, swinging, bass and guitar driven songs, particularly “Use Me Up”, “Bobby Tanqueray”, and “Seventeen” the last of which has some very clear Beatles inspiration and catches listeners attention by giving Mike Calabrese a turn outside of backup vocals, singing the second verse. While his voice is absolutely fine and suits the style of the song, it is Rachael Price’s voice, here and in the rest of the album that is the primary thing catching attention of listeners. Soulful and skillful, she manages to find the perfect balance between raw, powerful sound and virtuosic control. While Price’s voice is still incredibly impressive and evocative on the recorded album, it seems after looking into her live performances that she is one of the few relatively notable artists these days who’s voice is better experienced live. While I will continue to listen to the band’s music through headphones and repress the urge to dance or sing along, the ferocious nature of Price’s voice and balance of the overall group does not always lend itself to such a contained environment as small speakers and is better communicated in a natural setting.

That being said the music on this album is a breath of fresh air in an age where new music is often generated on a computer and sung by someone who didn’t write the song (which in many cases is probably a relief for them). All of the Lake Street Dive band members collaborate in song-writing efforts and their unanimously strong theoretical background and technique is very clear in their conception and execution. They describe themselves as a band that is constantly evolving and if that means they will continue to create new music, we should be very glad.

~Maureen Murray