Upon occasion I get salutations from Saving Country Music readers singing my praises for turning them onto one such band or another. A great artist or band can make me look like some kind of damn genius when really I did little more than drop a name. It’s the artists that deserve the credit, and the only genius on my part is simply taking the time to pay attention, and knowing where to look.
At the risk of giving away one of my trade secrets, one of the most surefire resources for discovering great music over the years has been the annual gathering at the Pickathon Festival outside of Portland every summer. That is where I was first wowed by Lake Street Dive going on two years ago now in a performance I later recapped as resulting in “the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.”
Lake Street Dive was invited to return to Pickathon this last year as well, but not as the unknown from the east coast that curious music fans were looking forward to catch a glimpse of, but a band that was on the brink of blowing up, and during this year’s festival Lake Street Dive specifically mentioned how their crazy ride had begun on those Pickathon grounds one year before. Now they’ve released one of the most anticipated records in 2014, and their name recently found its way onto the cover of Rolling Stone as “This year’s best new band.”
Lake Street Dive is a neotraditional, throwback group that blends elements of jazz, roots, Motown, and other smoke-filled, bluesy and soulful influences that both awaken the spirit in classic American music while still cleverly residing within its own little niche of the current zeitgeist.
You can’t talk Lake Street Dive without first talking about their leader, one Rachael Price—the stunning New England Conservatory product that started her life’s journey in Nashville’s principal suburb of Hendersonville, and whose name deserves to be mentioned in the exclusive company of contemporary music’s leading ladies worthy of praise for both artistic talent and intangible presence that makes ordinary humans into masters of awakening hearts. Price has the voice of a Staple Singer in the visage of a movie star, and she breaks hearts with the ease invading hordes pillage counties.
But there’s a reason this band isn’t called Rachael Price and the something something’s. Unlike a band like The Alabama Shakes fronted by the big personality of Brittney Howard, Lake Street Dive doesn’t endear themselves to you from their underdog status. Guitar/ trumpet player Mike Olson, bass player Bridget Kearney, and drummer Mike Calabrese all are grand aficionados at their own respective disciplines (in fact I might name Bridget Kearney as one of the best bass players out there right now), and they all aid Rachael Price with splendid and effortless harmony vocals.
Aside from the style of Lake Street Dive which is so immediately inviting to culture thirsty ears looking for music that marks that nexus between substance and pleasurable escape, their music has this wonderful, natural way of achieving excellent arcs in both the story and music that in the space of a three or four minutes have you buying into the characters, cheering or mourning for them, while the music peaks and craters in uncanny parallels with the stirring narratives.
I won’t lie, I was a little worried when I heard Bad Self Portraits was going to be an album featuring only original material from the band. Not that I doubted this four-piece could pull it off, but they do such splendid, unique covers like the five featured on their 2012 EP Fun Machine. I appreciate that it’s time for Lake Street Dive to stand on their own two feet, but it’s also important to feature their best material, original or cover, especially now that the world is watching to see if this is truly the year’s “best new band.” And I’ll be damned if there’s not one song on Bad Self Portraits to second guess. They set the bar high for themselves, clear the mark, and stick the landing.
Bad Self Portraits has songs on it many others will be covering on their own in due course, including maybe some of the style setters that influenced the band’s sound. Their key is peering beyond the surface of classic popular music to the bones beneath, to borrow and refer to, but not steal, and then build their own signature sound around that framework to make something both modern, classic, and timeless.
And something else they deserve kudos for is not including the usual hipster pretentiousness or irony in this project or their show, which is so indicative and almost expected from so many young, left-of-country bands these days. But I have to say, the one big second guess I have on this album is the production on the song “Bobby Tanqueray”, which on it’s own is a marvelous, instant classic of a song, but was sullied by an unfortunate, crunchy guitar tone that doesn’t fit the time or mood of the song, and some overly-loud overdub work that didn’t pan out like one would envision for this song when hearing it live. The song is so good it endures, but this was not the song to saddle with silly studio wankery. The song “Seventeen” also fell a little short, despite a solid premise and performance.
The success and interest in Lake Street Dive means the looking back in music to times when music carried more meaning is still in full swing and continues to nip at the fringes of popular consciousness. Lake Street Dive is a classy, smart, yet accessible and fun band that will help instill a new measure of substance in American music at a time when it is most needed.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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