Album Review: Lake Street Dive – ‘Bad Self Portraits’


Words by Amelia Viner

In this dangerously charming medley of pop rock, soul, and folk jazz, Lake Street Dive concocts a spirited brew of love’s fruits and afflictions. Bad Self Portraits is the band’s second full-length album after their 2011 self-titled debut and their 2012 EP, Fun Machine, a collection of cover songs.

Rachael Price’s distinct jazz vocal stands out immediately. Timeless and almost overpowering at first, her vocal performance is rich with conviction and a fiery pizazz which makes it impossible to pull away.

Bad Self Portraits appeals to our untamed, feisty sides with uptempo pulses and pop-heavy shimmy shakes. In their first ever TV performance on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert describes Lake Street Dive as a mix of “pop, jazz, and swing with a little bit of bluegrass.” While spritely, Bad Self Portraits also caters to our weary, love-ridden souls with its ooohs and ahhhs, occasionally exhaling into bluesy, contemplative sighs.

The title track “Bad Self Portraits” depicts an ex lover who makes the most of her recent purchase of a camera which she bought to take pictures of [her] love. Rachael Price, lead vocalist of Lake Street Dive, satirizes her loneliness through a newfound self possession. With staccato percussion and open vocal phrases, she sings: Gone are the days of me being so reticent/ I’m taking landscapes/ I’m taking still lifes/ I’m taking bad self portraits of a lonely woman. The lyrics kill two birds with one stone; they’re self deprecating and nostalgic of a time when the character didn’t spend moments alone with these new activities, yet proud of her newfound independence.

In searching for lines to transcribe for the sake of bolstering the album’s themes on love, I found myself wanting to write down most of Lake Street Dive’s lyrics. They seem to master the art of metaphor, comparing the allures and chemical alterations of love to alcoholic addictions in “You Go Down Smooth.” This track somehow grows more and more catchy even after several dozen listens, as do most of these songs. And so Rachael coos: I’m afraid to need you so/ and I’m too sober not to know that you may be my problem not my love/ Would it be true to say you go to my head? Rachael’s repetition of You go down smooooooth is in and of itself an intoxication as her vibrato swings from one chord progression to another. Check out how well Rachael’s vocals, the upright bass, guitar, and percussion compliment one another in their performance on the Showtime documentary, Another Day Another Time, a concert inspired by the Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis.

As a nice hiatus from the previous uptempo tracks, “Better Than” is a slow groove of reflection, consideration, and resoluteness. Whether Rachael is singing from her own experience or someone else’s – perhaps fictional – is unimportant because her wise and weary tone places us in her psyche as she weighs what she could or could not do, think or not think, feel or not feel. It’s a song that could play at a dive bar toward last call while the bartender stacks chairs on the tables, two friends drunkenly sharing an intimate conversation.

“Just Ask” is perhaps the track that spells out the theme of Bad Self Portraits the most candidly. Rachael sings: Love’s an addiction baby, there’s a rehab for every kind. Resembling doo-wop blues and gospel in its heavy background vocals, repetition of baby, and organ, Lake Street Dive takes this track as another opportunity to catch up to itself. It’s captivating in its declarations: Sunlight is a villain when it takes away the night/ And you’re about the same baby/ when you tell me you’re alright. This sophisticated line encapsulates their craft of layering metaphors, as it requires a double listen to glean a back story.

Bad Self Portraits is for anyone who has ever been disillusioned by love; for anyone who has lost themselves in love’s feisty climb and rediscovered themselves in the relief of its downhills. Dance to this album when you’re experiencing self victories, when you’re frustrated and just need to blow off some steam, and when you’re alone in your room reminiscing about your lost love affairs. Craving spunk or to feel subdued? This album gives you the freedom to choose your poison.

  • micaeli

    I’m sold! This album review was fantastic. Well done, Amelia!

  • Dianna

    Well written review. It sparked my curiosity to watch the video and I’m glad I did!