Lake Street Dive

Yikes, another great DIY band. These guys are scary-good: a jazz-schooled pop-rock-soul quartet, featuring a sultry lead vocalist and three world-class musicians on drums, stand-up bass, and guitar/trumpet. They’re relatively unknown, but not for long. Let me introduce to you: Lake Street Dive. (They probably don't want to be called by their initials, but that’s just a guess.)

They hail from different parts of the US, but because they formed at the prestigious New England Conservatory they're often labeled “Boston-based." They actually reside in Brooklyn (when they're not endlessly touring in their van), but we Bostonians—if I may speak for all of us—would be more than happy to claim this band as our own.

One of so many things I love about this band is that they are flat-out unique. I was initially struck by how bare their musical accompaniment is, but this minimalist instrumentation leaves copious bandwidth for Rachael Price’s vocals, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint. Watch the band—Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Mike "McDuck" Olson, and Price—perform one of their tunes live.

In business, I always like teams and organizations that stand out from the herd in some way—whose product or service (or business model or something) breaks from the pack. This usually begins with the team/organization having a unique identity, which gets reflected in their product, service, etc. (My oft-cited example: The initial Apple Macintosh team prided themselves on being a band of iconoclastic renegades, which was amply expressed in the first Macintosh—and then in its marketing campaign.)

So, if you’re a team that’s starting out, it’s important to discover your own identity—and then to express it and celebrate it. Having that team personality helps you develop your brand, along with your purpose, your passion, and your independent spirit—which are all interwoven with creativity and innovation. (So much so that it’s hard to even distinguish these elements from each other, though I attempt to do just that in my book.)

In working with new teams, I like to begin by encouraging that identity to reveal itself. This requires a certain amount of “hands-off”—which many business coaches (and too many managers) seem reluctant to grant. (Of course this doesn’t mean that teams can’t be educated or trained, but their "organic chemistry" needs to be respected.) Once teams discover who they are, the creativity follows.

My guess is that a team like Lake Street Dive took their time developing their identity—without much direction from the outside—and came to realize that their three-piece bare-bones sound could be an asset given its uniqueness. (When Olsen switches from guitar to trumpet, there's no instrument laying out chords for the lead vocal to “sit on”—a unusual effect, but one they've learned to exploit for the benefit of Price’s expansive singing style.) Simply put, they arrived at (stumbled upon?) THEIR OWN WAY of doing things, which is now paying off.

As you've read before on this blog: different isn't always better, but better is always different.

Of course being exceptionally talented doesn't hurt either, as the Dive demonstrate. But talent is never enough.

If you’d like to see more of the band, click here for “Use Me Up,” here for “Second Hand News,” and here for “Rich Girl” (my favorite).

HEALTH WARNING: do not watch these videos at work. You won’t be able to stop with three or four. Watching clips of Lake Street Dive can become seriously habit-forming, undermining your productivity and possibly your continued employment.

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  1. Part of the appeal of the New Pub sound (Fun/Lumineers/Mumford) is on the breakdowns where it's just kick drum, clapping and the singer. This has migrated into the New Christy Minimalists sound (WOTE/LSD/etc) where chords are optional as well, or at least there are breakdowns where chords drop out just down to rhythm. So the audience has begun to accept that approach on a variety of levels.

    So minimalism is a natural cure for lo-tech production values as well as providing this new sound approach the audience finds refreshing and sincere. It's even finding it's way into Pink/Gaga/Demi/Katy/Taylor-type songs in their version of breakdowns. Example: in "Trouble" Swift goes into this lift/pre-chorus/bridge section where the rhythm drops out and there's only the barest backing: "And the saddest thing/that you never loved me, or her, or anyone....." then back to the giant chorus. In fact, audiences are coming to expect something minimalist like that in songs, it gets the performer on a real one-to-one with the audience. It's a bit like the old Al Jolson routine where he'd break the fourth wall for a second in the middle of a song and exhort his crowd with "Hiya folks, how ya doin? You ain't heard nuthin' yet!" Now Swift took that right out to the ultimate point where in her Grammy performance the "I Am Never, Ever..." song basically stopped and she went into an English accent mocking her ex and half-talking the lines, no chords, no nothing.

    Performers are finding this chord-free mode opens things up and allows a direct connection, and thus they are more distinct and relatable in a vast sea of like performers.

    1. Insightful.

      But I haven't heard many bands play entire songs in chord-free mode. Sometimes the Dive's only chords are from their vocal harmonies.

    2. Watched a short video where Jake "Ukulele" Shimabukuro explained why a uke has no bass strings: four notes can be interpreted a dozen different ways, depending on the melody or bass notes from another instrument, or in the listener's head.

      I like the free open sound, the way the song could easily be shoved major or minor, or felt that way in my own head.

      Leaving space. Ignoring outsiders until you've found a voice. Different AND better.

      Those almost sound like business lessons. From rock.

    3. Ken, I heard that New Pub sound last night when I caught Of Monsters and Men at an outdoor concert in Boston. Quite an enchanting band.

      1. Well you can see why embracing the minimalist acoustic New Pub Sound is such a welcome relief after these monstrous mega-overproductions on the radio lately (Pink/Perry/Gaga/Swift/Lovato/Cyrus/JT/Mars/etectecetc). Folks are more than ready for Back To Basics.

        Perhaps why companies like Apple have lost their way. They kept winning the megaproduction wars but forgot all about their legacy of classic simplicity. Of purity of form.

        And to some extent their original designs got copied and bettered, and they're left with nothing now. They're good but no longer distinct.

        Their distinctive voice died with Jobs. Like listening to Queen now. Just another copy band.

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