With the kind of success enjoyed by Lake Street Dive, it would be easy to get complacent and churn out the next album in a similar groove to past records. Why mess with a proven formula? But, after being on the road for nearly eighteen months since 2018’s Free Yourself Up the group decided they could use some outside help. With more than three dozen new songs and the need to cull those down into an album, they turned to Mike Elizondo, the Grammy Award-winning producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who is perhaps best known as a songwriting collaborator of Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent, but he has also served as a record producer for Fiona Apple, Mary J. Blige, Carrie Underwood, and 21 Pilots, among many others. He is as conversant in jazz as in rock, country, bluegrass, and hip hop—exactly the sort of genre-juggling guy who would match Lake Street Dive’s own versatility.
The band has expanded into a quintet since touring keyboardist Akie Bermiss officially joined in 2017, and they all share writing and arrangement duties. After all, this is a group who met studying jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. They are vocalist Rachael Price, Mike “McDuck” Olson (trumpet, guitar), Bridget Kearney (bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). Their personalities, skills, and genre-agnostic approach have long made an impressively cohesive sound, both sophisticated and playful, combining retro influences with contemporary attitude. “We had so much fun in the studio making Free Yourself Up,” recounts Kearney. “But we’ve been a band for so long that we didn’t want to just become a feedback loop of our own ideas. It felt like a really good time to bring another person like Mike [Elizondo], and he really opened us up. He encouraged us to make bolder arrangement choices, take those chances and try those things. The record really is a success in what we set out to do: continue to challenge ourselves, continue to grow, and do things we’ve never done before.”
Obviously is titled after the first word in the lyrics of the danceable opening track “Hypotheticals” which begins with a retro sound and quickly transforms into the kind of rhythmic joy clearly influenced by Elizondo’s hip-hop record-making expertise. This animated rhythmic enthusiasm runs through most tracks, from up-tempo numbers like “Hush Money” to a bittersweet slow dance like “Anymore.” Bermiss gives them another singer and songwriter to round out their vocal harmonies which have been a strong suit since the band’s earliest days in Boston. Arguably, with Elizondo’s encouragement, the group vocals have become even more inventive. On “Same Old News,” Price and Bermiss do a lighthearted and sexy Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway-style duet, the kind that hearkens back to their penchant for R&B, heard on previous records with Bermiss adding some surprising keyboard flourishes. Bermiss had already toured with them for the last five years, but now revealed himself to be a songwriter able to get right into the band’s groove. His beat-boxing skills were an inadvertent bonus.
“Being a Woman,” released as a single, features those signature high register R&B oriented vocals of Price set to a snappy beat as she makes her declamatory case for gender inequality. The music stays lighthearted even when the lyrics turn more serious as on the lead-off single, “Making Do,” about a younger generation facing a poorer quality of life, and the standout “Nobody’s Stopping You Now,” a letter of encouragement from lead vocalist Rachael Price to her teenaged self, co-written with bassist Bridget Kearney. It’s the kind of song that in another time could be a soundtrack for a high school graduation ceremony. Who knows? Maybe it will someday.
“Know That I Know” and “Lackluster Lover,” have the band melodically soaring. “Throughout our recording projects, our frame of reference has come from classic rock and ’70s AM gold,” explains McDuck. “But in terms of modern production aesthetics, no one is getting it right more than hip hop. There are a lot of great rock and roll records too, but there are aesthetic choices that we, as a rock band, always struggled with when it came time to mix. So, it was great to work with someone as musically omnivorous as Mike [Elizondo], who’s had all that success and fluency in the hip hop world but can also hang when it came time to talk about double bass.”
“Anymore” slows it down for Price’s sensual approach, bathed in reverberating keys and that seemingly ever-present beat box, all of which is capped nicely by McDuck’s trumpet solo. Some of these songs just evolved while playing live while others were constructed piecemeal. “Feels Like the Last Time” began with Akie beat boxing to his own demo of the song, a tempo which Elizondo liked as the foundation that the band kept adding layers to. “Sarah,” the closer, was the first song they recorded and surprisingly its a cappella performance carries the feel of a lush, orchestrated piece.
Talent abounds, harnessed even more fully by one of today’s more contemporary producers. Obviously has ‘feel good’ written all over it.