critic’s pick 314: lake street dive, ‘side pony’

lakestreetdivelead1Listening to Lake Street Dive, especially the wonderful new Side Pony album, is akin to spinning a wheel labeled with differing song styles and genres.

Spin it once and it might land on vintage pop, although even that could mean anything from British Merseybeat inspiration (So Long) to ’60s style girl group harmonies (Hell Yeah). Give it another whirl and the results might run more to lingering, autumnal pop laced with jazzy cool (Mistakes). On at least one lucky spin of Side Pony, you might find yourself back in the mid ‘70s with a pumped up beat that falls somewhere between Philly soul and disco (Can’t Stop).

Such a such vast pop vocabulary, though obviously retro inclined, never sounds coerced on the quartet’s first studio effort since the breakthrough of its 2014 indie pop feast Bad Self Portraits. The stories shift between the fun, the rueful and the twisted but the sheer sense of vibrant pop cheer, despite all the musical shapeshifting, remains a happy constant.

With help from producer-of-the-moment Dave Cobb (whose client list includes Jason Isbell along with Kentucky faves Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson), Side Pony swims the pop waters like a shark. For all its ‘60s and ‘70s inferences, the songs possess an ominous drive that never sits still. During Hell Yeah, the guitar twang of Michael “McDuck” Olson and the big beat hullabaloo of drummer Michael Calabrese come drenched in distortion and reverb to counter the pop abandon with a dark alley air. Then when the record decidedly steps into the Soul Train groove of Call Off Your Dogs and So Long, the years mesh up even more. On the surface, it’s disco-fueled dance era innocence. But bassist Bridget Kearney’s lyrics on both songs reveal a tinge of regret and reflection that runs upstream against the beat-savvy currents. “This is what I get,” goes the narrative in Call Off Your Dogs, “for being civilized.”

The catalyst for all of these retro-happy, soul searching tunes is Rachael Price, who remains a singer with a potent set of pipes that effortlessly leads the charge of the more outwardly expressive pop outbursts yet stews deliciously went the sentiments and melodies chill over.

In a similar instance of pop role reversal, the album-opening Godawful Things suggests doomsday just in its title. But as the chirpy melody unfolds and Price’s commanding vocal work asserts itself, the sun beams in with a blast of Jackie Wilson-style soul – a sound Lake Street Dive knows like the back of its collective hand but gives a respectful redressing to. Like so many of the influences on Side Pony that relish in the familiar, what you hear is the call of pop’s past detonated with an ingenuity that can only come from new generation adventurers.

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