Audio Mixer: Damian Taylor.
Photographer: Norman Wong.
For many artists with lo-fi origins, making the leap from bare-bones recordings to the deluxe studio treatment is often risky; homespun charm can get lost easily in a more professional environment. John O'Regan's debut album as Diamond Rings, Special Affections, was bursting with that kind of quirky appeal -- as well as rock-solid songwriting -- which earned him critical acclaim and tours with the likes of Robyn. So when it emerged that O'Regan had recruited producer Damian Taylor, who had previously worked with such big-sounding artists as Björk and the Killers, to work on his second album, there was a justifiable concern that what made his first album great could get lost in translation. While some of Special Affections' fake-it-till-you-make-it moxie is missing from Free Dimensional, the album mostly just sounds like a bigger, bolder version of the voice O'Regan set forth on his debut. He signals Diamond Rings' decision to go Pop in a big way with "Everything Speaks," which boasts sleek beats and beacon-like synths that announce O'Regan's growing confidence loudly and proudly. Likewise, "I'm Just Me" and "(I Know) What I'm Made Of" mine similar here-I-am-deal-with-it territory with plenty of witty lyrics like "I'm controversial even during dress rehearsal." But even though O'Regan has streamlined things to fit Free Dimensional's more prime-time-ready sound, a bit of his debut's yearning remains, even if this album is largely a celebration of how far he's come since those days. "Runaway Love" is a perfect example of this album's polished pop, but lyrics like "you and I can beat the extra level" show he hasn't abandoned his roots, and while the bittersweet spareness of "Hand Over My Heart," "All the Time," and the Stephin Merritt-esque "Stand My Ground" makes them feel like Special Affections throwbacks, the studio gloss Taylor gives them only makes them shine brighter. Even the more straightforward songs here, like "Put Me On"'s dark pop and the driving "A to Z," have structures and rhymes that are smarter than your average pop song (not to mention distinctly Canadian reference points like Northern Loons). While Special Affections' indie charm is missed here and there, Free Dimensional lives up to its name by serving up lots of sparkling pop with depth as well as heart and brains. O'Regan might not be indie anymore, but he remains independent. ~ Heather Phares