[18 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The originally Boston-based band Lake Street Dive (now headquartered in Brooklyn) is poised for the big time. After attracting 1.2 million hits on YouTube for a sidewalk rendition video cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, recorded in 2012, the band’s star track has been ascending rapidly. Not only is the band now playing the likes of Carnegie Hall, the group, appeared last year as part of an all-star concert to promote the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. Jaws reportedly dropped, and the band is said to have upstaged the likes of Marcus Mumford and Joan Baez. Now, even Stephen Colbert has come a knocking, and the group has recently appeared on The Colbert Report – and, to wit, a spokesperson for Lake Street Dive admitted to me in passing that Colbert personally insisted that the outfit make its TV debut with him. This band is attracting fans in high places, and for good reason.
Despite the self-deprecating lyrics of most of the band’s songs, Lake Street Dive is an appealing amalgam of ‘60s-era girl groups with ‘70s AM Gold, with a helping of some Beatles-esque melodies thrown in. It’s quite the affecting mixture, as demonstrated on the group’s exceptional 2010 self-titled release. Put it this way: Lake Street Dive is poised to become, if they haven’t already, the money group for the rootsy indie Signature Sounds label in the same way that Arcade Fire has Merge Records rolling in the greenbacks. As I write these words on a weekend in early February 2014, the band has locked into the No. 13 spot overall for bestsellers in music on Amazon.com (something that certainly made me do a double take), and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the group climbs from there into the Top 10. They should be No. 1. They’re that good and talented, though, not to lob a downer, we all know that talent doesn’t necessarily get rewarded.
I’m ecstatic to report that the group’s follow-up – not counting a 2011 digital live album and concert film, and a mostly covers EP released the following year – is nearly as disarming as Lake Street Dive. Bad Self Portraits, taking its cues from the social media “selfie” phenomena, is a startling record, one that shows the group tightening up its songwriting chops and presenting a much more unified statement, front to back. Lead singer Rachael Price sounds as disaffected a woman scorned as ever, and, though she throws some of the vocal leads to her male counterparts, particularly on the song “Seventeen”, she’s still as commanding (and, as someone else in Review Land has noted, LOUD) a presence as ever. But Bad Self Portraits is notable for dialing down some of the jazziness of their previous full length – you have to get a few tracks in before you hear the group’s distinctive horns and Bridget Kearney’s thick thunk-a-thunka stand-up bass lines don’t really get a chance to shine until third track “Better Than”. Bad Self Portraits, then, is a much more streamlined and rockist affair. Even though it doesn’t reach the same heights, in terms of bowling you off your feet and knocking you over with infectiousness, as Lake Street Dive did, it is still an excellent record, and one that sees the group emerging as much more mature and self-confident. Bad Self Portraits shucks the adage that anything released in the depths of winter is dross.
What makes Bad Self Portraits particularly astonishing is that it naturally follows from previous releases in a logical progression. While the Fun Machine EP seemed at the time to be merely a stop-gap release meant to tide fans over to this slightly more than three year wait between proper albums (Lake Street Dive was released at the end of 2010), it now makes a great deal more sense in terms of providing a direction for the group. When the band covered Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” on that affair, it was merely a means of setting up the grandiose statement of the infectious piano led “Rabid Animal”, which is probably my favourite thing on the record although it is, alas, the briefest at two minutes and change. Still, that shouldn’t sell the rest of the album short. The gorgeous rock number “Stop Your Crying” (no, not a cover of the Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing” or a certain Bob Mould song from Black Sheets of Rain) is insanely propulsive and invites you to clap along. The countrified “You Go Down Smooth”, the song the band performed on Colbert, rambles and careens in equal measure. It is, to quote the lyrics sheet, a “special treat”. “Better Than”, with its seeming time signature shifts in certain measures, shows the band’s willingness to experiment with off-kilter sounds. And when Price sings “I have lived a privileged life, but I have seen my share of strife”, on “What About Me”, you feel it; right in the gut.
What makes Lake Street Dive so special is that, even though the band members are talented individuals in their own right, they are able to interplay and lock together to form a solid backbone to their music. Price, in particular, isn’t even 30 years old yet and has the razor sharp wit and wisdom of a woman a decade ahead of her. It’s impressive that the band can sound as tight as they do, as Kearney moonlights in other outfits (Joy Kills Sorrow, Cuddle Magic). If anything, Bad Self Portraits is another outstanding release from a really crucial and important group who is on the cusp of shedding its relative anonymity for bigger and better stages. While I doubt Lake Street Dive is ever going to headline stadium tours, their years of playing scuzzy bars (which impacted their selection of name) is clearly well, well behind them. Bad Self Portraits is an awesome addition to the band’s catalogue, and I cannot be effusive enough in my love for this group, self-deprecation be damned, that can make you feel so wonderful to be alive and breathing. Lake Street Dive has that kind of effect on listeners, and it’s blistering.