From Lake Street Dive’s initial presence on TV and radio, one might have guessed their major influences included Manhattan Transfer. But it turns out that, even though this foursome is jazz-trained, the references permeating Bad Self Portraits lean far more toward Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals and Tapestry-era Carole King, not to mention the British Invasion. It also turns out that combining earthiness and soul, girl-group harmonies and nods to early rock adds up to charm incarnate without cloying cuteness.
Songs such as the album’s centerpiece, “You Go Down Smooth,” affirm the collective wisdom of more than a million YouTube hitters who caught Lake Street Dive’s street-corner acoustic version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” after Kevin Bacon tweeted it. “Smooth” is a fabulous tune, a rocking floor-filler that gives a real showcase to these formidable voices. Lead vocalist Rachel Price, who sounds like she could have grown up in Motown but is actually from Hendersonville, Tennessee, is a powerhouse, but upright bassist Bridget Kearney (formerly of Joy Kills Sorrow) holds her own in the vocal harmony department. And on “Use Me Up” and elsewhere, you can hear each vibration of her thick bass strings as she slaps them around their shared vocal swoops.
They rough it up some on “Just Ask,” which contains dissonant elements and so many complex tempo changes, it stands as a testament to their obvious musical depth. But their playful streak is equally evident in cuts like “Seventeen,” which seemingly nods to everyone from the Beatles and Jacksons to Beyonce and beyond. That Beatles love continues to manifest itself in the last two tracks, “What About Me” and “Rental Love,” which tuck tons of Fab 4 references into their seams. “What About Me” also clicks into gospel mode before turning into an all-out party, with syncopated tapping by drummer Mike Calabrese and guitar work by LSD founder/trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson.
The album has one major issue — it’s got too much going on in places. The band admits that they started out chasing myriad musical directions, and that’s evident in tracks such as “Stop Your Crying,” which starts out as a Crystals/Ronettes/doo-wop homage with some Kinks rock ‘n’ roll crunch, then throws in everything including the Beach Boys. Songs like “Better Than,” one of the few here that don’t immediately bring influences to mind, are more successful. That one, a lonely, beckoning ballad with spare, melancholy trumpet, and the next track, “Rabid Animal,” let Price exercise her alto without getting carried away. (She also occasionally struggles with lyrics that could use honing in places.)
Maybe they’ll sharpen their focus on the next disc. But despite that flaw on this effort, it has a lot going for it. And so does this dynamic band.