Lake Street Dive Finds Beauty in Pop

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The members of Lake Street Dive (clockwise from top left): Akie Bermis, Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Mike “McDuck” Olson and Rachel Price

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Jazz educators frequently tell students that the ability to play numerous styles can be essential to making a living as a musician. A case in point is the band Lake Street Dive, which was founded in 2004 by four students at Boston’s New England Conservatory. Rather than pursue a career in jazz, these NEC grads have applied their conservatory training to the creation of catchy pop tunes heavily influenced by r&b.

The band includes Rachael Price (vocals), Mike “McDuck” Olson (guitar, trumpet), Bridget Kearney (bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). Keyboardist Akie Bermiss, who has toured with Lake Street Dive since 2017, is now an official member of the band.

Through steady activity on social media, the group has won devoted fans around the globe. The band’s version of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back” was posted on YouTube in 2012 and has generated more than 6 million views. The group’s cover of Norwegian pop trio A-ha’s hit “Take On Me,” posted in 2017, has racked up more than 11 million views.

The band also has shot videos for their renditions of tunes by The Beatles, Hall & Oats and Carole King, as well as clips for their original compositions, such as “Making Do.”

The latter tune is a single from the band’s eighth full-length album, Obviously (Nonesuch). The new disc was produced by Mike Elizondo, whose diverse resume includes work with Fiona Apple, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre and Carrie Underwood. Elizondo and Lake Street Dive had been familiar with one another’s oeuvres, but they hadn’t worked together prior to this album.

“He knew what he could get out of us, so he pushed a lot,” Calabrese told DownBeat via Zoom from his home in Boston, referring to Elizondo.

During the same Zoom chat, Price — speaking from her home in Brooklyn — recounted that during the recording sessions, Elizondo asked Bermiss to play a “deceptively easy” piano part on the tune “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” about 30 times in order to get the perfect take.

“Sonically, this is our most confident record to date,” Price said of Obviously. “It sounds like we really knew what choices we wanted to make, and we made those choices very boldly. And I think a lot of that came from Mike Elizondo [telling us], ‘I know what you can do.’”

Another standout cut is Kearney’s composition “Being A Woman.” Floating atop an earworm of a melody that’s punctuated with Calabrese’s compelling marimba notes, Price’s vocals chronicle the exhausting emotional toll of gender inequality and discrimination: “Being a woman is a full-time job/ And when we stand up and protest/ We’re called an angry mob/ While another lone gunman/ Loads up his shots.”

The powerful lyrics, combined with Price’s graceful, ascending vocals, make for an unforgettable tune.

“One of the secrets that we have used to put serious messages into a song is to give it a feel that you can listen to over and over again,” Price explained. “The message will kind of seep in through repetition. And that’s the beauty of a pop song, a bop with a message: You get to ruminate in a way that doesn’t feel oppressive.”

The album concludes with “Sarah,” a four-part-harmony tune written by Calabrese and Bermiss. When this journalist suggested that the track was reminiscent of The Beach Boys, the members of Lake Street Dive welcomed the comment as high praise.

“If you’re going to do an all-vocal arrangement, what else are you aspiring to?” Price said.

Calabrese concurred: “For pop vocal arranging, that’s the pinnacle.” DB



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