“My guests tonight play a combination of pop, jazz and swing, with a little bit of bluegrass. What, no Gregorian chants?”
That was how Stephen Colbert introduced the indie rock band Lake Street Dive, who made their television debut on his show on Feb. 5. Such a portrayal is perfectly accurate, yet remarkably useless. Lake Street Dive, whose album “Bad Self Portraits” comes out Feb. 18, skillfully synthesize such an eclectic array of musical motifs that critics are frequently forced to invent meaningless genre mashups in their futile attempts to describe the band.
Listeners might detect the harmonic eccentricity of The Beatles, or hear sing-a-long-able hooks that channel the Jackson 5, or sense Etta James in more tender moments. They might be attracted to Rachael Price’s sultry, soul-schooled voice, or be taken with Mike “McDuck” Olson’s whimsical trumpet solos, or feel a country sensibility in certain lovelorn, intricately-rhymed verses. Or they may simply be struck by how much noise a drum set, double bass, electric guitar and four voices can make.
The members of Lake Street Dive—Price, Olson (who plays trumpet and guitar), bassist Bridget Kearney, and drummer Mike Calabrese—met as students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and thought they would grow up to be jazz musicians. (Price, Kearney, and Calabrese now live in Brooklyn, and Olson in Boston.) In fact, the original concept for the band, as envisioned by Olson, was “free country”—as in, country music played with the freeness of jazz.
“It was funny. We came in and Mike [Olson] wrote ‘Lake Street Dive’ on the chalkboard. ‘Cause Mike can be very formal,” remembered Price one recent morning at a café in Brooklyn over eggs and coffee. Wearing large glasses and a plaid shirt over a striped tee, she resembled a dressed-down Scarlet Johansson, a glimmer of glamour detectable just below the surface.
“He was like, ‘Now we are a band.’ And he kind of explained his idea on being a free country band, and we all were like, ‘Huh!’ He was like, ‘I think we should play a blues.’ And we played a blues. And that was it. And we were like, ‘Cool,’ and we went out and ate. Which is how most of our rehearsals went after that: minimal playing, majority snacking.”
That was nearly 10 years ago. Lake Street Dive began their career at small Cambridge venues like Toad and Atwood’s Tavern, and managed to cultivate a devoted local following. (Their Feb. 21 show at the Sinclair on is sold out, but they will be returning to the Royale in Boston on April 6.) What started out as an experimental, sometimes baffling, project evolved into something unique and unexpectedly hip: a quartet with the feel and instrumentation of a jazz combo and the soul of a pop band.
“We’re pretty loose and improvisational within everything,” Price says. “Even though our aspiration is to play pop music, we have an innate desire to f--k with sh-t.”
What makes Lake Street Dive special is the same thing that makes them difficult to describe. Though they channel an assortment of retro music styles, it is never with the precious nostalgia of a “throwback” band. Olson, Kearney, Calabrese and Price all write songs that are catchy and instantly familiar, but they are always unquestionably themselves. And they put on a high-energy, technically impressive live show with hardly any of the usual trappings of a rock band. Olson uses few effects on his guitar, and when he picks up his trumpet, the others must make do with just drums, bass and backing vocals. Not that this ever feels like a disadvantage. Over the years, the four have learned to write songs with strong bass lines and singable call-and-response choruses, which they deliver in exuberant four-part harmony. The result is a visceral, immediate performance style of a sort rarely seen on the indie-rock circuit.
By October 2012, Lake Street Dive were selling out four shows in a row at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge whenever they came to town, but their fans and friends were beginning to despair that they would ever overcome their continued insignificance in the rest of the country.
Just before the band went into the studio to record “Bad Self Portraits,” Kevin Bacon tweeted a video of them playing a cover of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 on a sidewalk in Allston. It was shared on Reddit, Wimp.com and World Star Hip Hop, and Lake Street Dive emerged from the studio in Maine, where there was no internet access or phone service, to sold out shows in New York City, 4,000 more Facebook likes, an inbox full of emails and a rapidly multiplying view count on YouTube. The video eventually surpassed a million hits.
Of course, YouTube fame after a mere eight years of obscurity would have been too easy. Price, it turned out, was locked into an old contract from her days as a burgeoning young jazz star. An investor had funded an album that was never released, and some fine print decreed that she needed permission to pursue other projects. After years of laboring in anonymity, on the cusp of their big break, Lake Street Dive were in danger of losing everything.
“There were a good eight months where not only didn’t we know when [the album] was going to be released, we didn’t know if it was ever going to be released,” says Price.
So Lake Street Dive got into their van (christened Vanna White) and went on tour. And as the view counts rose and media outlets picked up on their story, Lake Street Dive actually gained momentum. By the time they made their Carnegie Hall debut, just days after the Colbert Report appearance, there were only a few weeks to spare before the release of “Bad Self Portraits.” (Ultimately, the band was able to strike a deal that let Price out of her contract.) “In the end it was a positive year,” she says. “I think we’re actually in a way better position to release the album this February than last February, which is basically when we were going to do it.”
“Bad Self Portraits,” which was produced by Sam Kassirer (of Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band), aims to accomplish what previous, under-the-radar Lake Street Dive albums could not. The band, which thrives in rock clubs despite a sparse setup, has always found it challenging to capture the energy and fullness of their live performances in their recordings. Kearney’s bass was apt to sound tinny; Price, so large in life, would end up sounding small. Kassirer’s studio is built in a big converted barn with rich natural reverb, and during the recording sessions much attention was given to making each instrument sound as substantial as possible while preserving its authentic timbre.
“I like that [“Bad Self Portraits”] sounds really different than a lot of the super popular music right now. It’s got a lot more space to it, it’s not as compressed and sounds more like a band playing in a room together,” Kearney remarked recently over the phone from New York City. “And that was something I was nervous about, especially—you know, we’re putting the album out on a much larger scale now than we could’ve possibly imagined when we were recording it. And thinking about the way it sounds as compared to the records it’s going to be on the proverbial shelves next to, I think it’s a pretty strikingly different-sounding record—but I’m really happy about that.”
Kearney is walking down the street, and the sounds of traffic squeal through the receiver. She is on a mission.
“We’re doing a ‘Rolling Stone’ photo shoot tomorrow, our first one, and they wanted to do it outside for some reason, which sounded crazy to us, ‘cause it’s freezing,” she explains. “So we decided we should track down some vintage snowsuits, which are easier to find than you might think.”
It is the same wry, slightly loony sensibility that defines Lake Street Dive’s songwriting. Early songs toed the line between the goofy and the profound, with titles like “Sometimes When I’m Drunk And You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt” and lyrics like: “Feels good to be over you/ But it felt good to be under you/ So maybe it’s just you that feels good.” Though the writing has arguably matured, the same wit is still apparent.
“In a lot of popular music, I think the lyrics are kind of neglected,” says Kearney, “because it’s easy enough to write something super dance-y and fun and you don’t necessarily need for there to be a compelling story line, but it’s of course better if there is. So I guess we’re striving to have both of those things going on in the songs.”
Lake Street Dive’s mastery of metaphor and wordplay is on particular display in the number they played on the Colbert Report, “You Go Down Smooth,” in which love is compared, appropriately, with alcohol: “Would I be lying if I said you were too sweet/ Though I’m quite sure you’ve got a bite/ I could say that you are just a special treat/ But we both know that that’s not right/ And I am afraid to need you so/ And I am too sober not to know/ That you may be my problem not my love/ ‘Cause you go down smooth.”
Kearney cites Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen as influences, “folkier songwriters that tend to be focused on the lyrics side of things.” But Lake Street Dive write with unusual straightforwardness. At the same time, they have an uncanny capacity to extract meaning from ordinary moments. “I bought this camera to take pictures of my love/ Now that he’s gone I don’t have anybody to take pictures of,” sings Price in the title track. “A lonesome highway is a pretty good subject/ I’m gonna make myself make use of this stuff.” The peppy melody and unsentimental tone belie the serious subject matter. The stuff goes down smooth, but it’s bound to leave one slightly, though pleasantly, altered.
This article was originally published on February 18, 2014.