The music on Lake Street Dive's new album Side Pony could fit snugly on just about any radio station playlist between 1969-1979. The songs are a combination of bouncy soul in the vintage Motown vein, wide-screen classic rock ballads that hearken back to Joe Cocker or Leon Russell, early-disco style light-funk, and fuzzy garage rock. Each track is like a genre exercise unto itself, with Rachael Price's smooth, sensual vocals serving as a unifier among all the style-hopping. What's most fascinating about it is how effortless, and effervescent, it sounds. It's as laid-back as a casual spin through the radio dial.
The album's title nominally refers to a hairstyle (a ponytail on the side of one's head instead of the back), but the band has somehow worked that phrase into a metaphor about their own style. "We've kind of co-opted the phrase 'side pony' a little bit to refer to something that's unique to you," says the band's guitarist, Mike Olson. "If you're rocking your side pony, you are doing something that feels natural to you, something unique to you, something that might not be mainstream or norm, but you're doing it proudly. And it's funny how after 12 years of making music together, we stumbled on a philosophy that neatly sums up our career. We've always striven, if that's the appropriate conjugation, to be true to our musical selves, so in that way we've always rocked our side pony."
The album is very much a follow-up to their breakthrough release, 2014's Bad Self Portraits, which similarly mixed '60s and '70s sounds to create something unique. "We're hopefully building on the foundation that Bad Self Portraits set, because that's what garnered fans," Olson says. "We'd like to think that they're still coming along for the ride, and we generally find our fans aren't genre die-hards. They're Rachael Price-on vocals die-hards or Bridget-Kearney-playing-bass die-hards. It doesn't matter what we do as long as those things are constant, which is pretty awesome because Rachel and Bridget aren't going anywhere anytime soon."
Olson talks a lot about how the band's calling cards tend to be a light, pop-influenced touch and a refusal to take themselves seriously, particularly as far as their image is concerned. "We try to be as lighthearted as possible with each other as friends, and musically," he says. "Even if the subject matter is heavy, pop music is our language. So there's going to be a lightness to that. The three-guys-in-T-shirts-up-against-a-wall type of band photo, that's fine, but that kind of seriousness we've never felt fits the music or our personalities. When we go out to sign records after a show, we like to have fun with our fans or take extremely silly photographs. It wouldn't feel genuine to have some heavy, brooding, dark, serious image on top of that. Lightness has been our go-to."
But it would be a mistake to confuse the band's ability to create seemingly effortless melodic pop with an actual lack of effort. The more Olson talks about the process of recording a Lake Street Dive album, the more it becomes apparent how much hard work and attention go into every detail.
For example, their 12-track album is fashioned very much intentionally as a two-sided LP. Track six is a slow-burning ballad called "So Long," which cools the mood down after a high-energy five-song blast. That song is immediately followed by the epic, gospel-inspired mid-tempo tune "How Good It Feels."
"We're big devotees of the craft of album-making," Olson says. "In addition to trying to write great songs and trying to record them as interestingly as possible, we're very into the idea of a record itself as a statement and as an art in and of itself. We spent a lot of time listening to other records and talking about the art of the side, and in a lot of ways, the A-side closer/B-side opener is a make-or-break moment. That was the product of an intense couple of weeks of playing with the order of the tracks, finding the lynchpin moments that anchor the sides and create an arc to the album. We had 20 or 25 different versions of the record going at one time or another. We want the listener to be able to get something out of how the album is structured."
And the band's arrangements, which are heavy on layered, airy vocal harmonies, are apparently just as painstaking a process to create. "We really agonize over the arrangements themselves," Olson says. "A song will often go through a half-a-dozen versions before it settles into anything long-term. And even then, we'll play something for six months and then decide we want to change the arrangement again. With only four people, three instruments, and the background vocals, we don't have all these tools that bigger bands have. We have to rely on the compactness of the band."
And the band found an ideal collaborator in Grammy Award-winning Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), who took an active role in arranging the band's songs. "He was extremely hands-on with us," Olson says. "We tracked most of the record live, which is a luxury we'd never had before, and Dave was right there in the room with us 90 percent of the time playing acoustic guitar or tambourine. We'd be in the middle of a take and he'd say, 'Hold on, stop, stop, we need something right here, a solo or another section or something. Let's work on that right now,' and we'd cobble something together or interpret something he sung for us, and those suggestions invariably lifted the song to another level."