Sometimes it feels like ‘community’ is the most overused word in the Portland music scene, but you can’t escape the word when talking about the solo debut album of Portland singer-songwriter Robin Jackson. Long one of the more theatrical and visible musicians in MarchFourth Marching Band and Vagabond Opera, he’s typically played the role of the saxophone-touting carnival barker, ushering along the show with slapstick humor and madcap operatics. But he’s also well known for the long-running, monthly Songwriter Soiree, where a hundred-plus people—from amateurs to well-known musicians—crowd into his house for epic, acoustic open mics that go well into the morning. The only rules? Two songs, no covers.
Energized by these simple parameters and spurred by fellow songwriters, Jackson forced himself to write new songs each month, damping down the profuse cabaret excess of Vagabond Opera in favor of the intimate folk and gypsy jazz inflections of his youth, alongside alternating tinges of marching bands, chamber music, and even cowboy songs. The resulting Dust Diaries is actually a squeaky-clean vitrine housing the aforementioned, dusty artifact. With help from producer Chet Lyster (Eels, Lucinda Williams), the record brims with tasteful ornamental touches, tidy musicianship, cinematic lyrics, and a clunky line or two (actually, I lost count) torn from the pages of his trusty (and dusty) old diary.
Jackson’s mildly affected tenor sounds strangely self-assured, like “hearing” someone smile on the other end of a phone, even as he alternately seeks closure and celebrates love through the cycle of seasons in lead track “October Rain.” A quick-paced but unhurried train beat propels the song forward as Jackson explores his narrative objectives over familiar pop progressions, airy harmonies, and simple arrangements, no doubt a nod to his beloved Beatles (and a spurn to that other fall precipitation classic, “November Rain”).
“Roses and Gold” brings us closer to Jackson’s otherworldly essence, his calming voice drifting through rhyming free-associations, luscious metaphors, and mythmaking, while a charmingly cluttered soundtrack of bouncing banjos, percussive this-and-thats, and slow-bowed strings assimilate his lyrical fragments in carefree strides, like invisible companions on a waterfront stroll alone lost in thought.
He runs his white-gloved finger over the grimy surface of seventies R&B to find “It’s that Time of Night Again,” a panty-dropper par excellence and an ode to quiet, late-night debauchery. When the glazed blur of the ballroom starts to spin in slow motion, he and an unnamed guest slink towards the back of the smoky nightclub and into a booth sticky with spilled whisky sours. On stage, a slightly tipsy Ben Gibbard gets loose with Bill Withers’ backing band, melting butter on a simmer.
Bringing the carnival back for a final album-closing hurrah, "This Time” stuffs the stereo field with tubas, strings, crashing cymbals, and sweeping, wistful pronouncements dripping with schmaltzy exuberance. Jackson inhabits a world where people call one another “darling,” make love in the rain, and put on dancing shoes. While it’s not the world in which I currently live, and I fear Dust Diaries retro stylings retread some of its music community’s well-worn ground instead of taking certain risks, I can nonetheless imagine it serving as soundtrack to NE Portland-style dinner parties in old Victorian homes where the phonograph sure does look cool, and, gosh, the cocktails taste swell, and don’t the girls just look smashing in their vintage lacy dresses?
Robin Jackson will play a record release concert at Secret Society Ballroom this Friday at 9pm backed by a local all star band with members of the Portland Cello Project, MarchFourth Marching Band, and Vagabond Opera. Y La Bamba frontlady Luz Elena Mendoza opens.