Singer Rachael Price has quite the pedigree. The daughter of composer Tom Price, Rachael attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, and has worked in several genres, including gospel and jazz, winning awards for her recordings in both. Recently, however, she and her band Lake Street Dive have taken on one of pop music’s great challenges: the cover song. Though for the listener, the cover can be a great joy, it forces the musician to tread a thin line; more often than not, the coverer either hews too closely to the original performance or radically revises it. When a cover falls too far to one side, otherwise good performances are overshadowed by their mimicry, in the first instance, or their novelty, in the second. Every so often, though, a cover comes along that's somehow both reminiscent of the original and original in its own way.
Lake Street Dive’s cover of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” is one of those songs. Bassist Bridget Kearney slows the famous opening to a molasses crawl; accompanied, at first, by Mike Calabrese’s lone hi-hat and later joined by Mike “McDuck” Olson’s wistful, winding trumpet, she gives each note the space to reverberate, stripping down the Jackson’s desperation and urgency into a certain kind of poignancy. Then the cymbals give a little kick, and Price, sultry and careful, wraps her pipes around Michael’s words. “When I had you to myself,” she starts, savoring the last syllable before rounding into “I didn’t want you around,” rushing through it, taking all the air out of it, like she’s embarrassed that that’s the way it was.
Much of the band’s cover heavy 2012 Fun Machine EP is this kind of clever, somehow both distinctive and familiar; before relapsing into her sweet-as-honey jazz voice, Price reaches deep into her range for the opening of George Michael’s “Faith,” and Olson, after playing the song’s opening riff with the help of Calabrese’s hi-hat, pulls up his horn and blows a little New Orleans from it. The band similarly roughs up “This Magic Moment,” starting the song with a sour sweet parody of a harmony, before receding into the back of the mix, giving the track to Price’s voice and Calabrese’s unadorned rhythm. As the song moves forward, it picks up complexity until, with a cymbal clash, it morphs into something resembling a rock ‘n roll crunch, even as Price, ever in the jazz mode, mitigates the song’s acceleration by cracking the words open in the middle, savoring the vowels until she has to let go.
At certain moments, its tempting to compare Price to Leslie Feist, but, at least as far as her involvement in Lake Street Dive is concerned, the comparison doesn’t quite work. While Price’s voice is an important element of her band’s sound, she doesn’t dominate the songs, stepping aside for long passages and letting the instrumentalists, each of whom she met at the New England Conservatory, take some of the spotlight. The lounge-jazz pop fusion of Fun Machine also represents a slight change of direction for the band, whose self-titled 2010 album is more diverse stylistically and more crowded musically, which pulls Price’s voice out from the front of the mix and allows her to try different things. Fun Machine is essentially a covers record (only one song is an original) and it's unclear whether it was a just for fun project or a permanent shift for Lake Street Dive, but, with a plethora of upcoming tour dates, the answer could become apparent soon enough.
Lake Street Dive will perform at Club Helsinki in Hudson on January 18th at 9pm. As of press time, tickets for the show are still available.