Diamond Rings

Special Affections

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Rather atypically for an act receiving the type of blog-buzz boost that Diamond Rings enjoyed leading up to this album's release, Special Affections presents John O'Regan (the singular man behind the confusingly plural moniker) as -- above all -- a singer and songwriter in the great pop/rock tradition of literary romantics. Granted, that probably wasn't the quality which first caught the attention of internet tastemakers -- more likely it was his rainbow eye-makeup, retro-‘80s synth pop stylings, goofily glammed-out low-budget video clips, and/or his knack for naggingly catchy hooks. Certainly, the fact that virtually every one of these songs boasts a melodic smart missile of a chorus contributes greatly to the album's appeal. Likewise, O'Regan's ear for crunchy, punchy, bedroom pop arrangements is just as keen as his flair for visual style: using a mid-fi palette of bare-bones drum machine beats, gritty electric guitars, a smattering of piano, and plenty of analog-sounding synths, he crafts tracks that feel fleshed out and full of fun while remaining relatively sparse and simple. Still, one senses that these songs could be just as effective accompanied by a full rock band or a lone acoustic guitar. The key thing is that these settings work wonderfully to complement O'Regan's voice, which is instantly the most distinctive sound on the record: a richly resonant baritone equally well-suited to crooning and brooding, redolent of Ian Curtis, Matt Berninger (the National), Neil Hannon (the Divine Comedy) and Stephin Merritt, although his tone is rarely as dour as the first two or as arch as the latter. Actually, the very timbre of O'Regan's voice lends an intriguing gravitas to a set of songs that are often otherwise quite playful, to potent if perhaps unintended effect, particularly on resolutely youthful anthems like "Wait & See," a paean to adolescent indecision, and the wistfully nostalgic "It's Not My Party." The combination of face paint and emotional earnestness calls to mind the New Romantic likes of Roxy Music and Duran Duran (not to mention David Bowie), but Diamond Rings is equally indebted to their less-fashionable contemporaries, like Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon, artists who demonstrated that being a singer/songwriter didn't mean you couldn't also be a rock & roller. Despite a weakness for waggish referentiality ("Born under punches and a real bad sign" might be a clever way to allude to Talking Heads and Albert King, but does it actually tell us anything?), O'Regan's lovelorn lyrics are typically both witty and heartfelt. Special Affections is both special and affectionate, highly infectious and recommended.

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