It seems ridiculous to be able to say that Lake Street Dive is a 12-year-old band, but that’s true—technically. Its members (Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson and Mike Calabrese) did indeed start occasionally performing together under the Lake Street Dive name in 2004, but the group was no one’s top priority. And it didn’t become that priority until 2011 or so, still several years before their Signature Sounds breakout, 2014’s Bad Self Portraits. 10 years in, and a fully realized Lake Street Dive had finally arrived and announced itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Their new Nonesuch follow-up, Side Pony, provides both an encore and procedural evolution of the songs that were presented on Bad Self Portraits. It begins with a collection of songs that sound (at least vaguely) as though they could have come from the previous LP before veering off into more uncharted waters, gathering strength all the while. The band can rest easy: Their experimentation reaps triumphant results.
Those earlier tracks, including the likes of “Call Off Your Dogs” and “Spectacular Failure,” find the band adeptly grooving in the particular, difficult to categorize niche of neo-soul and jazzy pop that they’ve made their signature, and one initially fears if perhaps there’s been little additional growth. “Spectacular Failure” even hinges around a “Bobby,” although presumably not Bad Self Portraits’ “Bobby Tanqueray,” given that the former seemed rather suave while this one is a hopeless fool “playing grab-ass in the shower.”
The revelation, however, is in the album’s final third, beginning with title track “Side Pony.” Leading off with a bit of playful xylophone, the disarmingly simple ode to the economical side ponytail oozes a charmingly retro sense of disco-era levity. An irresistibly toe-tapping groove provides bare bones for Price’s silky alto, which has been and will always be this band’s star. The song is followed by a string of infectious gems, from the Fred Schneider-like ebullience in Calabrese’s vocal intro to “Hell Yeah,” to the entirety of “Can’t Stop,” which is easily the funkiest track that Lake Street Dive has ever recorded. It could have accompanied the opening credits of a Pam Grier movie in 1975, set to car chases and leather-clad vixens shooting massively oversized pistols.
Price, of course, is the straw that stirs the drink, but it’s important to note that if anything, she steps back a bit more on Side Pony in terms of the commanding nature of her role. One feels a concerted effort on every level—from writing to the final production and mixing—to make this more of a band album, something that is apparently important to Price and comes through in Paste’s feature on the band this week. Her voice is the sort of marvel that should make the band understand and expect fans to crave and expect its use in a diva-like role, so when that voice is recessed a bit more, balanced behind increased instrumentation, perhaps there are some who will balk at the decision. But Price is correct in her own assessment of the situation: Judicious use of her greatest asset only amplifies how special it is.
Side Pony catches Lake Street Dive poised for a whole new level of exposure, as the band hits the late night TV circuit hard and takes determined steps toward next-level stardom. Upcoming shows in Phoenix, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Chicago and Seattle? All sold out. If the pre-sales are any indication, scrunchie sales are about to go through the roof.