Lake Street Dive’s seventh album opens with “Hypotheticals,” in which singer Rachael Price intellectualizes a process of the heart, running one simulation after another to prove her suitability for an object of her affection who’s maybe not so sure. With a backbone of crisp ’70s pop-R&B, it’s a solid argument, delivered with an appealing, straightforward certainty. But ultimately, matters of the heart are decided by the heart, not the head.
So it is with “Obviously” (out Friday), an album that would be easy to make a case either for or against. In keeping with the New England Conservatory alums’ track record, its peaks are so high and so satisfying (and come frequently enough) that the band isn’t sunk by the competent if uninspired jazzy lounge-funk that it falls back on when it runs out of ideas for its songs for grown-ups raised on thinking-person’s pop music from the ’70s, ’80s and beyond.
With more writing credits on the album than anyone else, Akie Bermiss (newly promoted from touring keyboardist to fully-vested band member) is substantially positioned to take Lake Street Dive in new directions. But despite a few small tiptoes into uncharted waters — the sad, pretty, and electronically enhanced “Sarah,” Price giving up on a relationship to the slow, sleek sound of “Avalon”-era Roxy Music in “Anymore” — Bermiss’s presence stands out for how little it stands out. That indicates that he was both an ideal addition and perhaps an irrelevant one.
Besides, it’s becoming harder and harder to miss the fact that bassist Bridget Kearney has developed into a marvelous songwriter. Just when you’ve settled into the low-key but tightly packed Pointer Sisters simmer of clear-eyed feminist lament “Being A Woman,” the bridge explodes, and the contrast doesn’t rip the song apart so much as unfold it in every direction. It and “Hypotheticals” are the album’s two best songs. They’re also the only ones where Kearney’s the sole songwriter.
They’re not the only keepers. “Feels Like the Last Time” operates with such minimal instrumentation that there are points where the chord progression is indicated solely by the backing vocals. And a tiptoe beat and bass blonks turn “Lackluster Lover” into the flip side of the band’s 2018 single “Good Kisser,” strong enough that the quasi-archaic phrasing of “Never had I such a lackluster lover” comes off as funny-surprising instead of insufferable.
But “Obviously” still can’t figure out how to avoid duds, either. The chugging state-of-the-world kvetch of “Making Do” is too unfocused to know what it’s trying to say, though a killer processed guitar solo by Mike “McDuck” Olson rips through it with a clarity of purpose that the rest of the song lacks. And “Know That I Know” is crammed with dull pop-culture references (“You’re Captain Kirk to my Spock,” etc.) and a mobius-strip chorus, all of which holds sincere emotion at arm’s length. Its strained, overt cleverness is just another way that the head can get in the way of what the heart wants to say. If only Lake Street Dive had a song about that very topic.