The art of the unexpected chord has fallen on hard times. That’s the strategy, prevalent in previous eras, where pop songwriters, arrangers and performers get a song going in one direction, setting up listeners to expect one chord, only to give them another. Unless the listeners are trained musicians, they might not even realize it’s a different chord, but they feel an emotional shift in the song, an enjoyable tingle of surprise.
In recent years, however, popular song has been more interested in other techniques: motor-mouth rhymes, stuttering microchip beats, street attitude and luscious studio tones. And those are all legitimate strategies that have led to some great records. But the unexpected chord provides a different kind of pleasure, one that’s been hard to find lately. That’s why Lake Street Dive is so important.
When this Boston-founded, Brooklyn-based quartet came to Baltimore’s Rams Head Live last October, the group unveiled four songs from its forthcoming album, Side Pony, which will be released Feb. 19. It’s a crucial album, not only because it marks the band’s transition from the small, respected indie label Signature Sounds to the Warner Bros.-affiliated Nonesuch Records, but also because it’s their one chance to capitalize on their buzz generated by their early TV appearances with Stephen Colbert, David Letterman and Ellen DeGeneres. It’s also an opportunity for the unexpected chord to return to pop radio.
In Baltimore, Lake Street Dive seemed up to the challenge. One of the new songs, “I Don’t Care About You,” opened with a buzzing, Beatlesque guitar arpeggio from Mike “McDuck” Olson, over the 4/4 push from drummer Michael Calabrese and upright bassist Bridget Kearney. But when Rachael Price began to sing, the guitar figure evaporated and the backing trio went into a relaxed blues swing.
One hardly noticed the clever gear shifting, because one was immediately caught up in Price’s rich alto. She used an earworm tune to inform a clueless ex-lover that “It’s too late; there ain’t no point in trying.” But the listener’s subconscious registered the transition as an enjoyable left turn, just as one’s inner ear appreciated the way the pounding hook of the major-key chorus was suddenly diverted into the descending, minor-key final line (“I’d say it to your face if I knew you could take it”) or the way the coda accelerated into double time to race through the chorus one more time.
“We are all students of that music: the Beatles, Paul Simon, David Bowie,” says Price. “And we met at jazz school, so we all grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged harmonic adventurousness. The combination of those two experiences made us from the get-go more interested in different chord progressions within a pop format. We try to invite the listener in by giving them something familiar to hang onto and then give them an exciting harmony that they weren’t expecting.”
You have to know what you’re doing to pull off such musical ambushes—and it’s no coincidence that the four members of Lake Street Dive met as students at the New England Conservatory of Music. But to make such surprises work in a pop context—as opposed to jazz or classical—they have to be hidden, embedded within the reliable pleasures of melodic hooks and dance rhythms. That’s a lost art, one that Lake Street Dive is bringing back to life.
In the band’s new Nonesuch bio, Kearney jokingly says, “We used to be stiffer, more analytical conservatory kids. Now we like to use our conservatory skills for good, not evil.” What she means is the band no longer uses their jazz chops to show off but rather to throw the listeners off-balance without them even knowing it. The band is always searching for the unexpected chord, not to prove how smart they are but to battle the mortal enemy of pop music: boredom.
“The temptation, especially when you’re young and acquiring new skills,” Kearney explains over the phone from Brooklyn, “is to overuse them, to show off all your complicated, technical abilities. But you have to be honest with yourself; you have to ask: ‘Does this really serve the song? Is it something that I would actually want to listen to?’ On the other hand, you don’t want to get into the habit of dumbing things down. You have to have to pick your spots to throw in an unexpected chord or a rhythm change, but it can be very effective when it works.”
“The chorale section at the end of ‘Godawful Things’ is a good example,” she says of another song on the new album. “The top of the song has an uptempo, melodic hook. But at the end of the song, when you’ve gotten to know what it’s all about, and in a nod to the inclusion of the word god in the title, it slows down and goes into a very churchy harmony that’s dense, awesome and new as it soars over Rachael’s vocal. You’ve already drawn people in and then there’s this moment that’s stunning at the end. But if that harmony had been there all along, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.”
“When you have a good groove,” Price adds, “you can do whatever you want harmonically; you can get away with anything. Stevie Wonder is a good example of that. Rhythm is the quickest way to cut into people, if you get their body moving, then I feel like I can say anything I want to, I can throw any harmony at you that I want to.”
You could hear that on stage in Baltimore, as uptempo songs such as “Stop Your Crying” and “Bobby Tanqueray” from the 2014 album Bad Self Portraits gathered so much momentum that listeners were swept along through the adventurous changes. Kearney, sporting dark bangs, seemed to dance with her boat-sized upright bass, which was a good six inches taller than her. The shyness of Olson, the tall, sandy-haired man in the black-frame glasses, was balanced by the grinning extroversion of Calabrese, the short, dark-haired man constantly jumping up from the drum stool.
But most of the crowd focused on Price, not just because she was the lead singer with the extraordinary voice but also because she commands attention. On this night she wore a sleeveless black top and a pink poodle skirt embroidered with a red heart and a black star. Every night she tosses an ocean wave of red hair over her shoulder and parts her brightly reddened lips to reveal teeth as bright as footlights.
From the way she dominates the stage, you’d expect Price to control most aspects of the band in the manner of almost all lead singers. But you’d be wrong. Of the 23 songs on 2014’s Bad Self Portraits and the new Side Pony, Price wrote one song by herself and one more with the rest of the band. By contrast, Kearney wrote 10, Olson six and Calabrese five. So when you see Price on stage baring her soul about a romance on the rocks, she’s actually channeling the words—and unexpected chords—of her bandmates.
“For me it makes so much sense,” she says. “Coming from a jazz background, all my experience was interpreting other people’s songs, and I found that interpreting a Michael Calabrese song was not that different from interpreting a Cole Porter song. It’s about being true to the songwriter’s intention but also putting my own personality into it.
“It starts with learning the song properly. When I get a demo from Mike or Bridget, I try to do it the way they did it, the same phrasing, same melody, like I’m a blank slate that they’re writing on. Only then can I mess with the melody or the rhythm because then I’m making a conscious decision.”
It’s an unusual set-up, but it makes for a more egalitarian band than most. It also gives the music a broader spectrum of personalities. Because the three songwriters (two male and one female) are feeding their perspectives on the world through a female singer, the band ends up approaching romance (its favorite topic) from every imaginable angle. And because they’re trying to impress each other with a surprising turn of phrase or an unexpected chord, they’re likely to do the same to the audience.
“Having everyone involved in the writing,” Kearney confirms, “gives everyone a stake in the enterprise. It’s encouraging to know if you’re ever in a dry spell songwriting-wise, there are three other people to pick up the slack. For this project we had 40 songs under consideration, and you have to learn to be OK with a song not making the record. The advantage for the listener is that there are four different perspectives. We’re all out there living our lives, and that means we’ll be writing songs with a broad spectrum of content.”
Reinforcing the democratic nature of the band is Price’s refusal to take the diva route. She clearly has the powerhouse lungs for the role, but in many a song, just when you expect her to burst forth with a roof-rattling major-chord climax, full of vibrato and melisma, she goes into an understated, minor-key tangent. It would make her a loser on American Idol, but it makes her a much more interesting singer on repeated listens to the same recording.
“I’m not particularly moved by diva singing,” Price confirms. “I’m moved more by a singer who’s aware of the economy of notes. I think that kind of over-singing pushes the listeners away. You’re much better off luring the listeners in and then surprising them with a riff they haven’t heard.
“I always keep in mind certain songs that are examples of that. Like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately,’ the way he sings it so simply until the end when he goes into this wild riff. It wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting if he’d been riffing throughout the song. You might not have noticed it at all. Or when Gladys Knight sings ‘I Feel Like Making Love,’ she sits so simply in the groove until she cuts loose at the end with tremendous effect.”
The band’s all-for-one/one-for-all ethos grew out of its 2004 origins. Olson, a jazz trumpet student, had an idea for a band that would play the country songs he’d been writing with free-jazz solos. It would be called Lake Street Dive after the strip in his hometown of Minneapolis where all the hole-in-the-wall bars were. He didn’t know his schoolmates Price, Calabrese or Kearney very well, but he’d heard them perform and thought they’d fit the concept. It was no big deal; everyone at the school was in a bunch of bands at the same time.
The fusion of country and free-jazz didn’t really work out, but as the four musicians got to know each other, they realized they had surprisingly similar tastes. Though they’d been born in the 1980s, they had all become obsessed with such ‘60s acts as the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and Dusty Springfield—all acts devoted to the unexpected chord. Once Olson agreed to also play keys and guitar, the band finally had a chording instrument and could get more serious about harmony.
“Once we realized that was what we all liked,” Price says, “everyone started writing in that style. Once we had those songs, we had to figure out what kind of treatment we could put on them that would identify us as a band. One of the first things that put it all together was back-up harmonies. It immediately made the sound so much richer; it was something that grabbed an audience’s attention right off. Michael had sung a lot, but Bridget and McDuck didn’t consider themselves singers. But when they wrote songs, they sang on the demos, so we knew we could sing.”
“It’s no accident that we sometimes sound like an early ‘60s girl group,” she adds. “We love those Phil Spector and Motown records. We’re all huge fans of Carole King, who wrote many of those songs. She epitomizes that whole idea of the instant classic, where a catchy melody is married to ambitious chord progressions.”
In Baltimore they displayed that gift for vocal harmonies as they unveiled the new album’s “Spectacular Failure” and “Hell Yeah.” On the former song, Price describes how a boy “completely inept at romancing” takes her out to a dance only to prove “a spectacular failure.” Her sharp-edged put-down is softened by the pillowy “ooh”s of her three bandmates, who are giving voice to the boy’s delusions.
By contrast, on the latter song, Price is impatiently waiting for a more appealing man to ask her out. If he ever did, she’d yell, “Hell, Yeah,” and her bandmates echo her rocking declaration in call-and-response fashion. The smart humor of both songs is also crucial in making it easy for modern listeners to swallow this retro sound and its unexpected chords.
“We didn’t choose a sound so much as gravitate to the sound that we were best at,” Kearney explains. “We discovered that Mike is a very funky drummer and that Rachael sounds really good on songs that use soul harmonies, so we said, ‘Let’s write more songs like that.’ But we didn’t to be backwards-looking, working with older styles all the time, so we’re always trying to incorporate new stuff.
“For example, ‘Call Off Your Dogs,’ the first single from the new album, came from a trip I took to Ghana in January 2014 to study percussion. I learned this 6/8 pattern and turned it into a guitar riff. That’s an example of something you can do to get you out of old habits. But still it’s your job to sit back and listen to it and decide if it’s good or bad.”
“‘Call Off Your Dogs’ was a tricky song for me to learn,” Price confesses, “with the verses being in three and the chorus being in four. The rhythm of the melody was tricky; I wasn’t sure how to sing it in a way that sounded natural. What you do is you sing it over and over again until it feels comfortable in your voice box so you’re not thinking about it.
“Once you to that point, you can start to make choices: Where do I put accents and pauses? Am I going to make certain notes more sonorous or more conversational? Do these notes fit in my range where I can relax or do I have to work to hit the notes? During this process I get lots of feedback from the band, which is great: They say, ‘I like the way you get grittier there; I like the way you cut off that note there.’”
The band was still a part-time project even after the third album, 2010’s Lake Street Dive, received national distribution from Signature Sounds. All four members were still juggling various projects in hopes that it would all add up to a full-time living.
Kearney, for example, was the bassist and a key songwriter for the new-wave string band Joy Kills Sorrow, while Price had a contract as a solo singer with a small jazz label. But in 2012, the four agreed to give Lake Street Dive a chance and make it a full-time pursuit. Kearney quit the string band, and Price began the torturous legal negotiations to get out of her solo contract.
“The friendship kept us together when we weren’t making much money,” Price says. “It was clear from the beginning that we all liked being in a band where no one was a leader. We liked that everyone was contributing what they could do. You didn’t feel out there on your own, because you were part of a team. The other thing is it created a diversity in your set. You had all these different perspectives, so it didn’t sound like one person’s viewpoint all the time.”
The release of Bad Self Portraits was delayed while the tug-of-war over Price’s solo deal dragged on, so the band started recording pop standards and putting them on the internet: George Michael’s “Faith,” Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” and Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.” But it was the slowed-down, adult-sultry version of the Jackson 5’s manic-adolescent song “I Want You Back” that went viral in 2013 and created a large audience for Lake Street Dive. All these songs were eventually released on the 2014 six-track EP Fun Machine.
Once Bad Self Portraits was released, that momentum began to snowball. The live-show venues were larger and fuller. In fact, they were on the road so much that they didn’t reassemble in the studio for the follow-up album until the end of 2015. When they did, they recorded it in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb, suddenly famous for his work with Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
“We listened to that Sturgill record,” Price explains, “and we were astounded by what a sonically rich record it was. So we sought out Dave as a producer. He essentially became a fifth member of the band when we were making the record. We’d play a song for him, and he’d say, ‘It needs a bridge,’ so we’d write a bridge. He’d say, ‘You need to flip the chords here,’ and we’d flip the chords. It was a big help to have someone outside the band with such good musical ideas.”
“He encouraged us to strip the demos down,” Kearney says, “so he could hear which songs could stand on their own two feet without the aid of production. It also meant that when we got into the studio, we weren’t tied to a particular way of doing the song. The songs become modular. What if the chorus shouldn’t be at the top, but should go here?”
They named the new album Side Pony after Olson’s song of the same name and after the hairdo (a ponytail over the right ear) that Kearney wears on the cover. The phrase “rocking a side pony” can also be used to mean “being yourself” or “making an unexpected move.” The band embraces all these interpretations.
“I just turned 30,” Price told the Baltimore audience in October, “but this is only the beginning.” The new songs do represent a new start. As good as the evening’s renditions of the songs from Lake Street Dive and Bad Self Portraits had been, as delightful as the cover of Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” had been, the material from the as-yet-unreleased album stood out as a big step forward. Price celebrated the big 3-0 with “Saving All My Sinning,” the final track on the new record.
Kearney’s lyrics are the confession of a well-behaved girl itching for trouble. Price sang the opening verse demurely over a funky bass-guitar-drum groove straight out of the Motown songbook. Halfway through that verse she shifted to a minor chord as if her piety were already beginning to dissolve.
She still seemed unsure on the second chorus, and when she sang, “I’ve been a good girl for so long,” she added a long “ooh” that froze the song in place. But then the dam broke open with her ringing proclamation, “I deserve to do something wrong,” and the formerly restrained backing vocals cut loose too, testifying as if in church, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” as Price wildly improvised, stretching the chords further and further.
The performance marked the liberation not only of the character in the song but also a band whose long wait is about to pay off—and also of all the chords that have been stored in the pop music closet waiting for the chance to come out and play.