Diamond Rings’ ‘Free Dimensional’ enshrines gay, kitsch-free retro synthpop


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

The best thing about the otherwise predictable Hugh Grant rom-com Words & Music is the opening number: A 1980s-style video to Grant’s character’s one chart-topper, a silly ditty called “Pop Goes My Heart.” For lovers of ‘80s kitsch, it’s the perfect expression of the greatness and the groanness of Reagan Era music.

John O was barely even alive back then, so whether it was by osmosis or design, the musician and songwriter who goes by Diamond Rings has found a way to channel that kind of sound. But unlike with “Pop Goes My Heart,” Diamond Rings isn’t making fun — he’s dead serious.

With his rainbow eye shadow, Ziggy Stardust glam persona and Devo-ish costumes, Diamond Rings is a throwback, producing catchy synthpop with a retro feel that borders on what Scissor Sisters does, only with a more electronic aesthetic. (Jake Shears and company are more Carter administration than Reagan.)

There’s a refreshing lack of irony on his new album, Free Dimensional, which hops genres like the frequencies on a jumpy car radio. From the opener “Hand Over My Heart” (it even has a similar name to the Hugh Grant movie theme) to “Stand My Ground” (vaguely reminiscent of Blondie’s perkier singles like “The Tide Is High” — sprightly and engaging and with a simple hook), he’s approaching his music with sincerity, and it rubs off on you.

Partly that’s because Diamond Rings’ genre-hopping is anchored by a deep, hypnotic voice that defies expectation. It’s not as deep as, say, fellow Canadian Brad Roberts’ basso profundo as lead singer for Crash Test Dummies, but it certainly recalls David Byrne’s throaty beats, though John O’s voice has more polish and also more variety. He moves from the electronica rhythms of 1980s new wave on the track “All the Time” to a more staccato, Britpop double-time beat on “Runaway Love” with a squeakier pitch, then down to the lower depths on the song “Put Me On.”

It’s hard to imagine all these sounds coming out of the twinky frame of this glamish club kid, which is probably why the album works so well. Yes, sometimes you can almost see in your head how the inevitable video would have looked in 1986. But if the opening synth chords of “Hand Over My Heart” don’t make you wanna jump up and dance as if Deniece Williams was singing “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” you weren’t alive in the ‘80s. And you probably lack healthy appreciation for goofy dancing.

What sets Diamond Rings apart, though, is how effortlessly he transitions into a contemporary idiom. Before that song has ended, it has morphed into a modern rap, layered with the pling of right-hand keys on a Moog and the reverb of AutoTune.

He does it again on “(I Know) What I’m Made Of,” this time starting off with a Harold Faltermeyer sound before sliding into a driving syncopated rap.

Faltermeyer? Deniece Williams? When’s the last time you even thought about those names? Yet you can’t escape them in Free Dimensional, as Diamond Rings dashes through styles faster than Jennifer Aniston hairstyles.

The 10 tracks of the 40-odd minutes don’t really build to something greater — this isn’t a concept album per se — but it does seduce you with its upbeat, retro melodies. Synth hasn’t been this quirky and accessible since before Bush was president … and I don’t mean W.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 26, 2012.