Lake Street Dive is powered by the voice of Rachel Price; it’s what hits you first when you listen to this quartet. It’s a ringingly clear, strong voice, a sound that’s at once beseeching and in control. Price regularly harmonizes with the other members of Lake Street Dive — bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese and Mike Olson, who also plays guitar and trumpet. But most of the songs on Bad Self Portraits are showcases for Price’s surging vocals.
When Lake Street Dive performed “You Go Down Smooth” amidst all the big stars T-Bone Burnett had gathered for his Inside Llewyn Davis tribute concert, it provoked cheers. The song, like much of Lake Street Dive’s material, looks to the past — in this case, a driving pop-soul ’60s sound. One thing that raised Lake Street Dive’s profile was a YouTube video of the group performing the Jackson 5‘s “I Want You Back” on a Boston street. It’s racked up more than a million views, popular for the way it not only displays the group’s talent, but also frames it as something both spontaneous and studied, a throwback to doo-wop groups crooning on street corners. This is the kind of thing that plays to the least interesting thing about Lake Street Dive: the privileging of technique over originality, the domestication of music that was once more unruly. You can sometimes hear this on Lake Street Dive’s original material, in a song such as “Rabid Animal,” which is catchy but hardly embodies the fervid intensity implied by rabidness.
Price also has a career as a jazz vocalist, performing with musicians such as Joshua Redman and T.S. Monk. And she’s released solo albums that include interpretations of standards like “Skylark” and “Serenade in Blue.” There’s a mood to this music that Lake Street Dive occasionally captures in a song such as Bridget Kearney’s composition “Better Than.”
When you look at YouTube videos of Lake Street Dive performing covers such as The Mamas and the Papas‘ version of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” what you get is not a fresh interpretation of a song initially made famous by the 5 Royales and the Shirelles, but rather a very nice Mamas and the Papas impersonation. But enough times on this album to make it worth your while, Lake Street Dive powers past nicety to connect with the passion that brings blood and sweat to the tears that heartache songs need in order to thrive.