Eston Dickinson was a preadolescent, the sixth of his family's eight children living in New Haven, Conn., at the height of the MC Hammer era. But the song he played on repeat—the song that gave him a vision of his own future—was Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," the 1957 R&B bauble to which Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey dance and lip-synch in one of Dirty Dancing's sexy scenes.
"I remember really wanting to have written and recorded that song," says Dickinson, now 33, "and feeling like I'd really like to be a part of something like that."
Though the song must have seemed eccentric and distinctly un-modern at the time, Dickinson had been raised on his parents' collections of '50s and '60s pop curiosities. Their unabashedly ear-pleasing intentions became a musical necessity.
"Before I even became musically active, I wanted to create irresistibly catchy tunes," he says, "the kind where everyone knows the song and the melody but maybe not the artist—just exactly like those collections."
The eight songs on Knave of the Heart—the debut album that Dickinson released online last year and finally issued this week on vinyl—honor that tradition of irresistibly catchy songs. Backed by area musicians, Dickinson upholds all salient pop laws: Melodies stick. Arrangements beguile. Dark thoughts leak through a sunny smile.
The collection gestated slowly, with three locals—Jeff Crawford, James Wallace and Justin Williams—all taking up Dickinson's catchy cause during the last three years. Dickinson had never led his own band, so these veteran multi-instrumentalists helped him reshape and finish the tunes, adding flourishes he'd never considered. Beyond lending musical accompaniment and advice, their affirmation of Dickinson's songwriting acumen might have been more crucial. Crawford, Williams and Wallace all lead or work with other bands, but they volunteered to help; Williams, who helms the more shaggy rock group Twelve Thousand Armies, even arranged seven of the eight tunes with Dickinson.
"I write songs all the time, but they haven't always amounted into something, because I haven't always believed in myself," Dickinson admits. "I shared these songs with some musicians I really respected, whose records I love, and they said: This is really good. That pushed me to actually finish the album."
One early supporter was The Love Language frontman Stu McLamb, an old friend from East Carolina University. The two had even played together in what McLamb calls "a weird band with a bunch of funny influences" (e.g. The Velvet Underground and Sublime) before losing touch post-college. They called themselves Fortet Habit, a silly name for their rather ambitious approach to genre. But in the post-Fortet Habit/East Carolina years, Dickinson realized that musical complexity no longer interested him.
"When kids start out playing instruments, especially in the rock genre, there's this drive to make really complicated music. I realized I'm a really simple songwriter," he says. "But just because the songs are only simple chord progressions, catchy melodies and good lyrics doesn't mean they're simple songs. When I started embracing that, my songs really started to become something more."
The realization didn't take immediately: Dickinson spent the decade after college playing in several groups at a time, mostly making varied takes on indie rock. He avoided the spotlight but always came away feeling let down
"I'd put a lot into this group, and then a year or two later it'd break up: So-and-so wants to go in another direction," he says, quoting the typical line of rock bands that disintegrate. "In the last few years, I said, I'm gonna take charge. I'm gonna make an album. I'm gonna put my name on it. Therefore, whether it's great, it's mediocre or what have you, it's mine."
Since college, McLamb had made his music part of a local scene, signing to Merge Records and becoming one of the most popular bands in the state. But Dickinson had moved to Charlotte before making his way to Raleigh, and he didn't have those sort of connections. When he reached out to his old college pal to ask him to add harmonies and small instrumental parts to a few tracks, McLamb not only did that but also helped Dickinson build a band, which he's calling Eston and the Outs.
A few months ago Dickinson was putting a band together for an upcoming show, and McLamb connected him with two of his current bandmates in The Love Language—keyboardist Autumn Ehinger and Tommy Simpson on drums—and Mark Connor, "who's played with everyone," on bass. Things clicked.
"Eston had recently moved to Raleigh, and I just wanted to help him get things going. It can be overwhelming when you aren't inside of a music scene to come in and get things going. There's always a little bit of an exclusive, in-the-club feeling," says McLamb. "It was just great music, and I wanted to show it to as many people as I could."
With just one of its eight songs exceeding the four-minute mark, Knave of the Heart is paced so as to be consumed in one sitting. Indeed, the LP has the feel of an exquisite tasting menu—no centerpiece, just a crafted ensemble that's meant to be relished. And while there's a melancholic underpinning that provides crucial ballast, even a song called "Married to Lonely" sounds as buoyant as The Jesus and Mary Chain having a pillow fight.
"I really enjoy hearing songs that have that peculiar twist, where there's a predicament the narrator's singing about," says the singer, "but they make it in a very carefree, happy way."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dancing from the dark."