Although they’ve yet to be nominated for a Grammy, for whatever baffling reasons, one can only imagine the hand-wringing conversations about which category would apply to Lake Street Dive. For 15 years, they’ve been pop’s outliers: A band fronted by a lead singer with roots in jazz and cabaret, playing music that nods to Americana, R&B, pop and everything else but never fails squarely into any of those categories. Hell, Bridget Kearney even plays an upright bass.
On Obviously, they’re still oddballs, but in the best way. At a moment when pop strives for lo-fi, solitary-world intimacy, the jazz-pop-whatever band refuse to think small. Fully living up to the water imagery in their name, they’ve made their first truly abashed yacht rock record — with all the hooks, musical interplay, sophistication and sometimes dodgy lyrics of that genre.
Start with the crispy R&B sway of tracks like “Hypotheticals” and “Same Old News,” played with a refinement and sense of dynamics that conjures Aja-era Steely Dan. Whatever the reason (perhaps the increased role of recently promoted keyboardist and singer Akie Bermiss, who duets with singer Rachael Price on “Same Old News”), the music feels newly limber, elastic and far more cohesive than on their last album, 2018’s often jarring Free Yourself Up. The funk-lite guitar and electric piano solo in “Know That I Know” are so yacht that you keep looking around for lifejackets.
But their ambitions don’t end there. Price remains one of the lithest vocalists in modern pop, and she and the band aren’t afraid to showcase it on a grand, proudly shameless show-stopper ballad like “Nobody’s Stopping You Now,” which could double as an empowerment anthem or a potential theme song for the end of the pandemic. “Being a Woman,” a litany of daily grinds and chores, benefits not just from the spare, finger-snapping arrangement but Price’s delivery, which effortlessly exudes empathy and tenderness.
As with yacht rock, lyrics can be a problem. As well-intentioned as they are, the anti-corruption manifesto “Hush Money” and the generation-screwed apology “Making Do” could stand a little more subtlety, as could “Lackluster Lover,” one of the album’s several romantic hot-mess scenarios (“You could tell me you love me and I wouldn’t give a shit”). But as with the best yacht, it’s the music that will lure you in. To paraphrase Christopher Cross, they’re sailing, away to where they’ve always heard they could be.