Somewhere between glam rock and party pop, Free Dimensional, the second LP from Diamond Rings, underscores the fact that most innovation in popular music comes from rearranging the familiar rather than reaching out into the ether to birth something radically new.
Don’t let the endorsement by Mac Cosmetics fool you. Diamond Rings is more than a simple, superficial pop act that will be obsolete before we know it. Somewhere between glam rock and party pop, Free Dimensional, the second LP from Diamond Rings, underscores the fact that most innovation in popular music comes from rearranging the familiar rather than reaching out into the ether to birth something radically new. Despite this widely-held axiom, John O (the Toronto-born singer/multi-instrumentalist who leads the Diamond Rings operation) has made statements about his singular ability to make music that is untimely. "I have to earn the respect and the attention of my audience, and prove myself in the popular sphere first," the androgynous John O notes. "I'm doing everything I can to make music that people will totally understand." One listen to Free Dimensional makes this statement almost laughable. Of course audiences will understand this music because it’s really good, catchy stuff.
“Runaway Love", the album’s first single, is replete with electronic drums, a great (and perfectly distorted) guitar riff and synthesizers to boot. “I want to be the light to your dark / I want to shine like gold / I want to burn my name in your heart / I want to lose control,” sings John O on the chorus. And just like that, you’re hooked. You will know this chorus by heart -- it’s an infectious track that is sure to wind up being played in dance clubs willing to spin something with a slight rock element to it.
Other songs on Free Dimensional aren’t quite as successful. The problem with “Hand Over My Heart” is that there’s just too much going on in the arrangement and it’s far too unfocused. The verses and choruses have an uncanny disco feel to them. During the bridge, however, John O raps over pounding bass riffs and synth melodies:
“I believe taking chances / Changing up the circumstances / Discovering new romances / Learning steps to different dances / Take my words but leave the song / I loved you wrong, but even though it hurts / I’m going-going-going gone.”
I’ll spare you all a joke that references ESPN’s Chris Berman commentating on the nightly homerun highlight reel on Baseball Tonight. Sure, the rapping is corny, but it’s strangely effective (I dare you not to tap your foot to the song as you listen to it). Ultimately, the cheese-factor is a bit overpowering and the song suffers as a result. “Day and Night” makes the same mistake -- only this one includes John O counting to 12 before his admission that he’d “love you day and night.” Yikes, it’s irritating and lyrically vacuous.
The rap bridges continue on “(I Know) What I’m Made Of”, another aggressive anthem to cultivating oneself in the face of our culture’s pervasive tendency to flatten out difference. To be sure, the self and identity are two pervasive themes on the album (and this thematic coherence will certainly be appreciated by many -- especially by those with sympathies for non-traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality), but the bridge on this particular track sounds like the Bloodhound Gang temporarily suspended their incessant misogyny and dick jokes for 30 seconds to record a not-so-great rhyme about “techno, hip-hop” and other sundry things. The song is certainly better than “Hand Over My Heart”, but it’s further testimony for why John O should steer clear from rapping over the masterfully orchestrated electronic soundscapes on the record.
If “(I Know) What I’m Made Of” commits the cardinal sin of tawdry (almost downright unlistenable) lyricism, there’s plenty of redemption to be found on the rest of Free Dimensional. “I’m Just Me”, a song bound and determined to be a single, is a saving grace and all is almost forgiven thanks to some clever electronic programming and another excellent hook that includes the dynamite lines, “Hold me underwater / Teach me how to breathe / I’m no son or daughter / I’m just me.” “Stand My Ground", a high-point on the second half of the album, knows better how to descend into rap hell, and deploys more traditional piano over top of the various synth sounds that grace the song.
However the public receives Free Dimensional, it is a clear statement that John O and Co. are apt to be a pop phenomenon that won’t burn out anytime soon. There are plenty of great choruses mixed with fun electronic sounds. Although the record could almost certainly be cut in half in order to make for one killer EP, the flashes of brilliance here are truly exceptional.