Album of the Week: Bad Self Portraits

Swinging soul act pulls influences to carve its own sound.

In my first installment of Album of the Week on Crackle & Hiss, I want to share with you an album I’ve had on constant rotation since I came across it a couple of weeks ago. Lake Street Dive’s "Bad Self Portraits" has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

It’s not exactly a new release (the album hit the internet and retailers back in February), but unless you’ve come across their fantastic version of "I Want You Back" on YouTube, chances are, the driving 60’s soul music of Lake Street Dive will be a new introduction.

Lake Street Dive is a band that deftly avoids categorization. The four musicians have been playing together since they met while studying jazz at college in Boston 10 years ago.

What you hear from their sound is a pared-back chemistry of drums, guitar and stand-up bass, upbeat songs and enormous, throwback-style vocals. There’s a strong swing and Motown influence here, with traces of the popular Americana sound that’s been popular over the past few years.

You’ll hear multi-layered harmonies in homage to The Band one minute, and the next you’re picking out the sultry vocal stylings of Amy Winehouse. But don’t be fooled. Lake Street Dive has concocted a sound that’s all their own.

The element that initially grabs you when you hear the first few seconds of opening title track is Rachel Price’s powerful vocals. Her voice gives off a rich, husky texture that brings to mind Bonnie Raitt and Billie Holiday, and it’s the driving force of this band.

The song opens the album with the down-tempo introspection of a woman left alone. She sings of the pastimes she’s taken up with her newfound freedom: “I’m taking landscapes, I’m taking still-lifes…” but she arrives at the conclusion that she’s also been taking less-than-flattering pictures of herself without anyone else to photograph.

It’s a sigh of resignation. Price realizes she'd rather be chained to someone and have the comfort of companionship than be free and alone.

Throughout "Bad Self Portraits," the songs explore the tension that exists between the fundamental human need for love and the wisdom and discernment we gain from past mistakes.

Nowhere on the album is that dichotomy better hashed out than on the band’s signature track, “You Go Down Smooth.” “I’m afraid to need you so. And I’m too sober not to know… you might be my problem, not my love,” Price croons over a driving, slanted tempo.

It’s a big, fun song that will have you pressing replay until you’re tired of dancing. “Smooth” swells to the rafters with horns and energetic backing vocals. It’s in my top 10 songs of the year so far.

But there are several other stand-out songs on the record that will catch your attention. “Use Me Up,” “What About Me” and “Stop Your Crying” are songs that will stay with you long after your listening queue is empty.

The album does drag at times, particularly as the band takes its best shot at the blues with “Just Ask.” It takes the “come to me with your problems and I’ll comfort you” sentiment and slows it down to nap-inducing speed. Not that there’s anything wrong with a slow song; it just feels like filler here.

There are also moments when the production seems to undermine the musicianship, as on “Bobby Tanqueray,” where strange sonic elements feel completely out of place with the rest of the album. But I could spend so much more time praising this band for what it gets right.

The handclaps, horns and multi-textured harmonies fill the spaces in these songs with joy. Bridget Kearney’s vibrant bass-playing keeps things fresh throughout the course of the album, and Price’s show-stopping voice propels these songs to great heights. If you’re at all interested in hearing anything with soul, Lake Street Dive’s "Bad Self Portraits" might just be your new favorite discovery.

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