Review Summary: You know that saying about "books" and "covers"?
There's an old saying we've all heard before, and it goes "Never judge a book by its cover". However, anyone who's got a little life-experience under their belt knows that saying doesn't always hold true. There are plenty of times where you can see something/someone, and know exactly what you have in store. Well, Diamond Rings debut album "Special Affections" just goes to show that with that saying, like most things in life, there's a gray area. Which is fitting, as this album deals in gray areas. Seeing John O'Regan (who pretty much is "Diamond Rings") posed on the front cover certain things pop right out: the rainbow mascara meticulously applied to his face, the outfit, the hairstyle...first assumptions would say you're getting a glammy new-wave album, tongue planted firmly in cheek. And for the most part you'd be correct. The beats scream 80's, with throbbing synths just begging to be danced to. However, there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about the whole affair. O'Regan has patched together an album of introspective lyrics on coming to grip with a new identity filtered through a new-wave, indie pop sheen, all held together by his fantastic voice.
Diamond Rings came to be while O'Regan, who fronted Canadian post-punkers "The D'Urbervilles", was laid up in the hospital. To pass time, he began toying around with some new ideas for songs he had been thinking about for a while. He began recording songs right in his bedroom on his laptop. Last summer, he dropped the infectious "All Yr. Songs", which became a viral hit on Youtube thanks to a rather hilarious video. A small dispute with Sony records (who had the video removed due to what they thought was a copyright issue) only furthered his already growing buzz. As the next year passed, he slowly released a few more singles. And something began to happen: while "All Yr Songs" was full of sun and cheer, each single that followed grew darker. It was a sign of depth not shown on the song that gained him notoriety in the first place.
So here it is, over a year since he came onto the scene, and O'Regan has finally dropped his full-length debut. A year is a long time to build up expectations, and therefore the possibility of disappointment grows along with those expectations. Thankfully, O'Regan delivers the goods. Album opener "Play By Heart" begins with a slow, throbbing synth line, finally adding some twinkling piano before O'Regan uses his secret weapon...his vocals. After a full minute, his booming baritone drops the line "Calling out of context/can you hear me yell" and you suddenly realize what differentiates this album from so many other bedroom artists: he uses his vocals as a centerpiece. There's no fuzz, no static to distort them. It's a voice to be proud of, and wisely put on full display, which he does with each songs' huge choruses. The song continues to play the same way throughout, brooding and slow. Which makes the follow-up "Wait & See" so jarring. A few electro-glitches start the song before the awesome synth line kicks in, and it's hard to not get excited for what the rest of the album has in store for you. "Wait & See" is everything that's great about this album all wrapped up into one song, doing the brooding thing in the verse and the big danceable chorus, and it makes a strong case for being the album highlight, in an album full of them.
O'Regan plays up the androgynous nature of his look by never explicitly stating his sexuality. There's no mention of a "he" or "she" in any of the songs, which just adds to the mysteriousness...the gray area. The lyrics also deal with him coming to grips with his new-found look, a far cry from anything he was doing with his previous band. "Wait and See"'s chorus includes lines about "feeling like a bit part actor" and "don't you wait around for me to decide what I want to grow up to be". It's been done before, but it works well within the context of the album. From "Wait and See" we go to "On Our Own", with its buzzy synth behind a steady drum-kit thumping throughout, and the song benefits from O'Regan's voice again, this time because he goes a little higher before dropping low for the "ooh, ooh, ey oh" in the chorus. The sugary-sweet love song "You & Me" follows, and again includes lyrics that can be read a number of ways with "let's hold each other tighter/let's shine brighter/let's be you and me". The album continues the winning streak with the danceable "Give It Up", the stop-starts of "Pre-Owned Heart", the completely infectious "Something Else", and the throbbing "You Oughta Know".
Penultimate track "It's Not My Party" adds some fuzz to the synth lines, with the most unique song on the whole album. It's as close as "Special Affections" gets to a ballad, with O'Regan humming between lyrics about being in love in the chorus. Finally, the album ends with "All Yr Songs", which is perfect placement for the song. By that point, anyone who's been following him since day one had almost forgotten that the album they've been listening to was even made by the same guy. It shows just how far he's come, and gives a lot of hope for where he's going. Plus it's just a damn good song. O'Regan shows a ton of potential for the future in his debut, and anybody who has a soft spot for new-wave owes it to themselves to listen. And even if you hate that genre, his blending of it with electronica and indie, plus that distinct voice...well, you may find an unexpected treat in this album as well. You just have to allow yourself to get past the cover.