The most apt album title any group has ever come up with in the age of the selfie: Lake Street Dive‘s Bad Self Portraits. Is the Boston blue-eyed soul band’s latest release a commentary on extreme narcissism in the digital age? Actually not. This album’s about tunesmithing. Saying that any one band is the best at any particular thing will always get you in trouble – just when you think you know everything, a new discovery takes you back to square one. However, it is safe to say that there is no catchier band on the planet than Lake Street Dive. These songs are absolutely gorgeous, the kind that you catch yourself humming as you walk down the street, and then suddenly you’re in a good mood.
Their sound is very distinctive: they put a driving, kinetic, guitar-fueled edge on original songs written in a classic 60s soul and Motown vein. Frontwoman Rachael Price has a sardonic, acidic edge to her voice, which perfectly suits the songs’ lyrics. Bassist Bridget Kearney doesn’t get to cut loose here as much as she does onstage, but her melodic hooks are still delicious and often appear when least expected: she’s sort of the band’s second lead guitarist. What makes guitarist Mike Olson’s playing so interesting is that he’s more of a rock player than a soul player: you don’t hear a bunch of recycled Memphis or Muscle Shoals licks in what he does. There’s a lingering chipotle burn in his resonant, snarling chords, counterbalanced by a terse, period-perfect, muted mid 60s tunefulness in the songs’ quieter moments. Drummer Mike Calabrese anchors everything with a slinky swing.
The album opens with the title track, a more amped-up take on a classic, swaying soul sound: the woman in the story got a camera to snap shots of her boyfriend, who’s now gone, so can she take it all by herself and springboard an art career with it? That’s the question. The second track, Stop Your Crying is wickedly catchy Phil Spector-ish girl-group pop with roaring, stomping electric guitar and jaunty vocal harmonies. Then the band takes it down for the wounded, brooding, swaying Better Than, Kearney’s bass dancing around judiciously as she signals the changes.
Rabid Animal vividly evokes the caged feeling a kid would get moving back home, taking a step backward, Price’s voice agitated against a syncopated doo-wop piano melody. You Go Down Smooth is a dead ringer for classic Holland-Dozier-Holland, complete with a big blazing brass section and a clever series of false endings. Use Me Up keeps the Motown vibe motoring along with a series of absolutely delicious major/minor changes, Kearney kicking it off solo over the drums, the song building to another classic crescendo, Olson’s guitar set against what sounds like an echoey electric piano patch on a vintage 80s DX7 synth.
Bobby Tanqueray starts out as the jazziest track on the album and then rocks hard, up to a Beatlesque chorus and more of those droll girl-group harmonies. Just Ask works a steamy series of dynamics through a vintage Memphis theme, the organ, guitar and vocals moving up and then down: “You may not win my body by poisoning my mind,” Price asserts…but she likes the guy despite herself. On the next track, Seventeen, she ponders a pretty universal situation over a loosely funky, Led Zep-tinged pulse: what if we’d actually been able to hook up with somebody cool in high school instead of having to wait for what felt like forever, until college, or even later?
What About Me welds a funky sway to an oldschool soul chorus, a Beatlesque bridge and a richly tuneful guitar solo straight out of the George Harrison playbook. The album winds up with Rental Love, which if you buy this particular anachronism, sounds like the Beatles doing Imagine as the opening track on Sergeant Pepper. There’s a sourpuss, cynical contingent out there that says that all this has been done before, that it’s impossible to play vintage-sounding rock and soul better than the originals. Lake Street Dive defy that, and in the process have recorded one of the most deliciously tuneful albums of recent years.
Now where can you hear this album? Not on Spotify or Soundcloud and barely on Bandcamp, although most of the tracks are up at Youtube in various form: click the links in the song titles above. Many of those tracks comprise an excellent live broadcast on Oregon Public which is archived here. Lake Street Dive are also excellent in concert; they’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 31 at 10 PM. $18 advance tickets (available at the Mercury Lounge from 5-7 PM, Monday-Friday) are recommended.