Even though there is a specificity and uniqueness about Rob Dickson’s stories on Portraits, it’s hard not to see yourself and those around you reflected in his tales.
If, like me, you are battling with feelings of pandemic fatigue, please go and put on Portraits, the latest release from Yukon-based singer-songwriter Rob Dickson (full disclosure: Rob is a former contributor to DOMINIONATED.) Dickson wrote most of Portraits’ dozen songs in 2020 at (where else?) home while hunkering down with his young family to ride out the lockdown. Like many people, he used the time to reconnect with family, particularly his parents and grandmother. “[His experience with the pandemic] started out with a feeling of restlessness,” he describes, “perhaps a longing to regain connection between my mind and body.” His conversations with his family began informing the songs and stories he was working on: “I began by writing about my parents and their parents and how I imagined they found their way…I fantasized a lot in some cases, combining events from my life into storylines that would more solidly guide me or add generosity to the songs.”
Generosity is an apt word when it comes to Portraits, not only in the substance and subject of the songs but in the group of friends and collaborators who lend a hand to Dickson’s musical illustrations. Mika Posen arranges and performs strings on the album opener, “Paper Plane,” a gossamer song that introduces the recurring motif of field recordings of Dickson’s children that pepper Portraits. Dickson’s memory poem unfurls over spare muted piano that reminds me of Boxer-era National. “Flowers” picks up the tempo, adding more instrumentation (courtesy of producer James Bunton) for a lovingly rendered recollection of (what I’m assuming is) Dickson’s wedding day. As a counterpoint, “Aaron & Rae” (featuring Bry Webb on electric guitar and backing vocals and Micah Smith on bass) uses a similar arrangement to tell the story of how a youthful boast shattered the innocence of three young friends. It ends abruptly on a down note, with the album’s most cutting lyric hanging perfectly in the silence between songs. Elsewhere, Ansley Simpson adds sparkle with backing vocals (“Flowers,” “It’s You,” and “In The Fall”), while Michael Feuerstack offers some steel guitar colour (“It’s You”).
The real highlight of Portraits, though, is Dickson’s songs and their characters. Like a set of still photos arranged in a faded family album, there’s a specificity and uniqueness about their stories, but it’s hard not to see yourself and those around you reflected in their tales.
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