Formed while its four members were studying at the New England Conservatory, Lake Street Dive was originally conceived as a “free-country” side project, portending something like a fusion between Ornette Coleman and Dolly Parton. Yet the group's sound has meandered away from that initial concept like all the best musical improvisations tend to. The band gained early YouTube attention by serenading passersby on Boston street corners with jazz-inflected arrangements of classics like “I Want You Back” and “Faith,” and their new album's relative lavishness feels miles away from those early DIY micro-concerts.
Bolstering the band's initial barebones lineup of upright bass, trumpet, drums, and vocals with growling electric guitars, lush keyboards, and heftier percussion, Bad Self Portraits loses some of the minimalistic precision of those early covers, yet in its place the album provides fire-hose-level torrents of energy and hip-swaying modulations of tone, rhythm, and instrumentation. Lake Street Dive clearly possesses such fluency with jazz fundamentals that Bad Self Portraits finds them thickening Bridget Kearney's hyper-dexterous excursions on the upright bass and Mike Olson's plaintive trumpet solos with borrowings from other genres, so that “Stop Your Crying” explodes into a vigorous doo-wop sass-attack and “Rental Love” builds around a simple piano template like the Beatles' “Let It Be.” Anchoring the whole affair is Rachael Price's stop-you-in-your-tracks vocal chops: Her voice falls somewhere between Etta James's dusky rasp and the achy-hearted muscularity of country-crossover artists like Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt.
It would be easy enough for such an ace vocalist to overshadow the band or to conveniently eclipse sub-par songwriting, yet their jazz-nerd roots and cheeky way with a lyric elevate the album above merely showcasing a standout vocal talent. In their lyrics, Lake Street Dive sidles up to well-worn topics like heartbreak and sexual craving from a humorously self-deprecating, recession-era point of view. The title track meditates on the conundrum of having “bought this camera to take pictures of my love” just before that love expires; rather than selling the camera, however, the speaker starts “taking landscapes,” still lifes, and the titular brand of ill-conceived selfie, miraculously finding the will to move forward in these frenetic compensatory efforts. “Rabid Animal” laments having to fantasize about sex during “another night wasted in my parents' basement,” capturing a distinctly millennial brand of sexual frustration.
Though much is gained by throwing more instruments and musical influences into Lake Street Dive's continually diversifying mix, the danger is that the band begins to sound like other genre-bending groups, like the Alabama Shakes or Delta Rae, who infuse more traditional musical idioms—soul, gospel, blues—with contemporary pop-rock flourishes. Bigger, louder, and more eclectic works well on Bad Self Portraits, but smaller, quieter, and more precise was what made the band's earlier efforts so distinctive. Here's hoping that they find a way to keep varying their sound without detaching too dramatically from their modest but inimitable street-corner roots.