Not enough to overcome its inauthenticity
Music is all about performance, costumes and smokescreens. Before becoming one of the most influential gangster rappers of all time, Dr. Dre was part of a group called World Class Wreckin’ Cru that dressed up like Prince and made music to breakdance to. The Sex Pistols were started by a politically active clothing store owner named Malcolm McLaren, who formed a hugely important band out of his customers after his previous project, The New York Dolls, crashed and burned. The point is that authenticity is usually a silly thing to worry about, yet it’s hard to not get this nagging feeling that Lake Street Dive is not the real deal. It’s not the fact they are a group of white people making black music, because that can be applied to a lot of music. There’s just not enough fire or spark in their music to avoid feeling like the Uncanny Valley of pop-soul.
When one’s mission statement is to be the Beatles crossed with Motown, they’ve set themselves up for failure. Both of these could craft effortless melodies in their sleep, which remains Lake Street Dive’s biggest problem six records into their career. “You Are Free” is the most lively song, with great guitar licks and pre-chorus knots and a hook that actually lands and sticks with listeners, and the opener “Baby Don’t Leave Me Alone with My Thoughts” possesses some psychedelic color and guitar smolder.
The rest of the record is too sanitized and bland to stand out. Compared to someone like Alabama Shakes, the lack of a good, distorted, rougher edge is an impediment to the record rising above audio wallpaper. “Dude” gets close, but the song just wails and wails for too long without the intensity to make the wild finale work. Maybe Lake Street Dive are like Dave Matthews Band, where the live performances are widely more interesting than the studio stuff, but that doesn’t make the record any less sleep-inducing, especially on ballads like “I Can Change” that could have been made by anyone.
Even though the performances are all technically acceptable, nothing grabs people’s attention as the album slips into the background in record time. Lead singer Rachael Price has a striking, husky alto like Alice Merton, yet her vocal tone never modulates, and she’s not given any good tune to work with. The background vocals and harmonies, something for which they got praised for in the past, now sound limp on “Red Light Kisses” and “Hang On.”
Producer Dan Knobler helped create one of the great dream-country albums of the dead, Caroline Spence’s Mint Condition, yet Free Yourself Up has none of the defined atmospheres of his best. The touches of faint organ on “Musta Been Something” never evolve or modulate beyond a mid-song spike, and the guitar solo on “Doesn’t Even Matter Now” is ruined by a piercing, kitschy background tone.
Lake Street Dive’s sound has been cannibalized into commercials and popular music, so perhaps it’s this association that is dragging Free Yourself Up down. However, a quick scan of their back catalog, while possessing more electric tones and interesting texture overall, does not reveal anything groundbreaking or especially interesting either. It’s bland and inoffensive, with everyone doing their job with a passing grade and nothing more, which would be less egregious if that was not reminiscent of their whole career.