Lake Street Dive’s latest, Side Pony (out Feb. 19 on Nonesuch Records), represents a clear consensus on the part of all involved that song and melody, as delivered by Rachael Price’s vocal, shall be the driving and ultimately defining elements of the project. (Part of the credit for this newfound clarity should perhaps by given to producer Dave Cobb, who also produced Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free). This is a significant development for the band, whose earlier recordings, including 2014’s Bad Self Portraits and the 2012 EP Fun Machine, were occasionally characterized by a competitive or compromising tension between Price’s vocals and the instrumentations of other band members. With Side Pony, however, the bass and drum parts — played by Bridget Kearney and Michael Calabrese, respectively — as well as Mike Olson’s guitar tracks, now properly situated compositionally and in the mix, are all the more compelling. The results exemplify how “serving the song” is an art form in and of itself, requiring both skill and humility.
From the opening track, “Godawful Things,” we’re transported to the cosmos of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5, perhaps Gladys Knight & the Pips. “Call Off Your Dogs” is reminiscent of Hues Corporation’s 1974 hit, “Rock the Boat,” a paradoxically smooth but still sultry melody, delivered amidst a contained but precisely woven soundscape. “Spectacular Failure” is certainly a highpoint — a song so classic in its framework and melody that I kept thinking, “This has got to be a cover, perhaps a Phil Spector tune performed by The Crystals.” (“Then He Kissed Me” from 1963 comes to mind.) Lake Street Dive’s song, however, makes use of a tongue-in-cheek slang that would never have shown up in a Crystals piece but is almost quaint (or perhaps satirically self-deprecating) coming from Price in 2016 — lines such as, “You’ll never nail her/What a spectacular failure” and “Bob and Jack play grab-ass in the shower.”
“I Don’t Care About You” makes use of a recurrent riff that reminds me of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s timeless guitar part from the title track of their 1991 pre-grunge classic Fly Me Courageous, affirming Lake Street Dive’s absorption of various rock sounds as well as the band’s ability to incorporate harder (distorted) elements into a predominantly R&B context.
“How Good It Feels” emphasizes the band’s proclivity to forge infectious rhythms; Kearney, Calabrese, and Olson render a soundscape that would have a robot snapping its fingers and bobbing behind the steering wheel (assuming a robot could drive). And, while most of the takes on this album are upbeat, feel-good, and irresistibly danceable, “So Long” delves into more melancholy territory, a song that might be a fit for the moody stylings of Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, or Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine.
The title track is another high point. Price’s confident vocal carries the song. Its melody and particular phrasing would make Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Al Green proud. The tune and lyrical stylings are accessible, direct, and dynamic. “Side Pony” is a song you’ll be humming in your dreams.
The jangly opening of “Hell Yeah” references any number of Motown classics, Olson’s guitar progression also constituting, perhaps, a slight tip of the hat to garage rock (i.e., Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era) or even a “cleaner” Ramones.
Olson’s smooth-jazz trumpet part on “Mistakes” adds another instrumental dimension to the album — a sparse but hypnotic melody. Meanwhile Price offers lines such as, “Oh it’s good that these men don’t know each other/I’ve got one who’s working undercover trying to solve my mystery,” and “Oh it’s good that these men don’t know each other/Every time I lose one, I can just move on, I always find another.” I can imagine the intro to “Can’t Stop” triggering a jealous reaction from Harry Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band, the piece quickly seguing into a melody that would make Bill Withers or Aretha Franklin smile.
In terms of craft, the eleven songs on Side Pony are the band’s most notable yet — a broader and more informed pop awareness as well as heightened attunement to enrolling melodies and instrumental hooks.
But Price’s vocal is the band’s calling card, and rightfully so. With these tracks, she emerges as the consummate frontwoman and vocalist, a diva who knows when to shine, when to share the stage, and how to operate as both part and leader of a musical team. While she elegizes her various sources, she ultimately operates within her own artistic sphere, forging her own particular evocations, her own parameters within which to celebrate, posture, and, occasionally, lament. This is good news for Price, even better news for Lake Street Dive.