Photographs are the gateway to the past. These 3×5 glossy prints serve as tangible memories capable of unleashing an emotional flood the instant the image and retina meet. While photographs convey moments locked in time and place, they can also inform and inspire the present and future — much like music.
On their breakout LP, “Bad Self Portraits,” Brooklyn-based jazz-pop-soul quartet, Lake Street Dive, taps into the curious power of the photograph, with a throwback twist. The band itself has a bit of a vintage vibe, with lead singer Rachel Price fit to be a 50s pin-up girl, upright bassist Bridget Kearney looking straight out of an episode of Mad Men, and drummer Mike Calabrese and multi-instrumentalist Mike Olson sporting just enough flashback hipster gear to round-out the look.
While it is easy to describe the band’s onstage appearance, it is much harder to pigeon-hole Lake Street Dive into a specific genre of music. On the album, Price’s smooth vocals offer a buttery mix of Motown soul and southern rhythm and blues, while the band adds a punch of doo-wop, swing and jazz. Collectively, the melding of musical styles finds a sweet intersection across all 11 tracks.
The album opener and title track is a bluesy take on the modern-day selfie phenomenon. With Laurel Canyon undertones and vocals that stand up to blues-rock icons Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi, this track jumpstarts the album with soul and presence. The doo-wop swinger “Stop Your Crying” speaks to the cyclical nature of letting the wrong kind of love come back around. With lyrics like, “I am a photograph, a moment stuck in time,” this track is a realistic glimpse into how love can cloud better judgment.
The album slows down on “Better Than,” a smoky ballad with a sadness reminiscent of Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” As Price’s vocals dip low, Olson adds muted trumpet tones that further drive the melancholy home. After the quick piano pick-up jam, “Rabid Animal,” Lake Street Dive puts their best feet forward with “You Go Down Smooth,” the song that blew minds and propelled the band to fame at T Bone Burnett’s “Another Day, Another Time — Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’” concert in NYC last fall. “You Go Down Smooth” is not only lyrically brilliant, with cocktail metaphors galore, but it also highlights all of the band’s best features — Prince’s sultry jazz-singer range with the bands crisp harmonies and instrumentation.
“Use Me Up” is an ironic flip on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” telling the tale of a parasitic love that leaves little left over. “Bobby Tanqueray” is a dreamy combination of retro rock cosmic flair and “Little Shop of Horrors” corner-shop doo-wop. It is fun and clearly one of the album’s best, despite feeling a bit overproduced.
“Just Ask” is five minutes of pure R&B bliss, with distant gritty guitar and ghostly backing vocals layered behind Price’s velvet vocal elegance, while “Seventeen” capitalizes on the band’s collective talents and falls in line with the more modern blues style of John Mayer.
By this point in the album, listeners may start feeling like the album’s protagonist is a bit of a pushover. Just in time to dispel this assumption, “What About Me” gives the album the sexy confidence it needs, and gives the love story a real backbone. However, just as quickly as the confidence appears, it withers as the album closes with “Rental Love,” a murky lounge reflection of a one-sided love affair that features Price’s powerful pipes one last time.
Overall, “Bad Self Portraits” covers the spectrum of emotion that accompanies the journey of love. Each track is a snapshot into past relationships, both good and bad. Throughout the album, Price displays a vocal prowess that makes Amy Winehouse’s absence seem a bit more bearable. Lake Street Dive offers a unique perspective on music’s past while catching the attention of listeners today. In the blink of a flash, “Bad Self Portraits” chronicles the band’s contribution to music and will hold its color and composition in the albums of music for decades to come.