Riding The Soul Train
Lake Street Dive haven’t been around for a terribly long time, but they’ve managed to try on an awful lot of hats since their 2004 inception. Sure, they’re no spring chickens either – the Boston quartet boasts a healthy back catalogue of full-lengths and what appears to be a pretty reliable fan base. But in a few short years they’ve done everything from the Peter Paul & Mary folk setup to the faux jazz quartet thing to piano singer/songwriter act as facilitated by musical ambidexterity of Lake Street Dive’s core members.
This time, they’ve landed on the bluesy side of Stevie Wonder. Side Pony is stuffed with church choir organs and soulful gospel proclaimin’ and the snare-heavy drumming of Sly and The Family Stone, balancing out Lake Street Dive’s adult contemporary soft rock, which remains mostly intact in “So Long.” Opener “Godawful Things” is tellingly exuberant, balanced out by Motown slow jam “Close To Me.” The tricky accents and horn flourishes of “Call Off Your Dogs” is another of the few scant remnants of Lake Street Dive’s previous work. In its broader moments, the tune is ripe for comparison to contemporary group Rubblebucket, who are admittedly a bit more daring in their approach.
And Lake Street Dive have certainly played it safe for their latest record, or at least stuck to well-traveled paths. “Spectacular Failure” is just one of the cuts that sounds like “Son of a Preacher Man” stretched out for the length of an album. It’s artfully dotted with antiquated conventions of yesteryear, such as asking a girl’s father for permission to take her out, a poor sap who’s “completely inept at romancin’ ” and, even less forgiveably, “dancin’,” and of course accusing people of having homoerotic tendencies. You know, the kind of stuff that fits the timeless soul vibe that Lake Street Drive have chosen to step into. “I Don’t Care About You” is pure stumbling drunk, hard-driving Jimi Hendrix-influenced blues, perhaps the record’s most straight-ahead track. Title track “Side Pony” drips 70s FM radio aesthetic straight down to the jubilant bongos. It’s like something out of a Coca Cola commercial, so bubbly and lovingly mixed. Turns out that the lyrics are actually about the hairstyle and surprisingly not about spousal infidelity.
But the hi-fidelity and ramped-up production value gets a little overstimulating over the course of Side Pony. “Can’t Stop Your Love,” equal parts feverish disco and Destiny’s Child with an extra “Funky Drummer” fill or two thrown in, showcases a relentlessly cheesy auto-wah on Bridget Kearney’s electric bass. On top of that, it seems like each instrument of every song is mixed glaringly high, an insane contrast to the folky touch visited on their early work and live performances. Side Pony is kind of like the work of Jamiroquai, in that every aspect of the songs are both recycled from previous eras and mixed in a way that borders on falling prey to the much maligned Loudness War.
All together now: Side Pony is less textured than, say, the title track of LSD’s last album, Bad Self Portraits. The satisfying thrum of a standup bass has died out. The piano has taken a back seat. There are no fun pauses. The lyrics aren’t as thoughtful, funny or bleak. In fact, some of them are just mean and seem under thought. Despite all the fanfare and boisterous blues voice, nothing feels as flavorful as the comparatively sparse tracks from Lake Street Dive’s self-titled like “Hello? Goodbye!” It’s no great loss, though. I’m sure Lake Street Dive’s next whirl at the genre roulette table will be more successful and, hopefully, a bit more subtle.