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BENT NIGHTS Diamond Rings; Antennas Up
MUSIC Special to the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester
2010-12-08

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"I have size 13 feet which doesn't mean anything .... 'cept I'll kick your drink over." This was a warning from Diamond Rings, who, after a ballistic reading of his "Wait and See," evolved into a dance/tantrum that resembled a line drawing in angry motion, did exactly that to an unfortunate cocktail perched on the Empty Bottle's low stage. Darling that he is, D.R. proffered his drink ticket to the deprived drinker, but his manners, endearing qualities and charm are really beside the point for the man is something of a pop movement all unto himself. His full-length debut, Special Affections ( Secret City Records ) , sounds like '80s synth pop, powdered European disco and AM rock with an FM sensibility, with a smartness that makes it irresistible. Couple all that with his voice—sort of a cross between a sexed-up Phil Oakley and Iggy Pop at his most buttoned-down—and an outfit for this show that certainly left an impression ( flame-red basketball shoes, gold lame tights, a pair of Chicago Bulls shorts and a cluster of jangling necklaces that stayed in motion, topped with a severe platinum blonde wedge ) and you could say with confidence that he's not the usual pop animal. At more than six feet tall, he's whip-thin and with a rainbow stripe painted across his eyes, he's the very image of exotic innocence. So where do queer guys like him come from?

Canada, dude. Diamond Rings, aka John O'Regan or John O., started with the group the D'Urberulles and, after a brief stint in the hospital, wrote "All Yr Songs" and posted its video on YouTube. An unexpected windfall of publicity came with a cease-and-desist lawsuit slapped on him by Sony/BMG for copyright infringement, as there was confusion with their Brit rapper Chipmunk and his single "Diamond Rings." Sony backed off and apologized after they realized that this Diamond Rings was not a song title but a name and, as a result, the controversy gave "All Yr Songs" a blast of publicity and turned it into a hit.

But if D.R. bares a visual resemblance to a chilly Aladdin Sane-era Bowie, his music is all about matters of the heart. Special Affections is about love, whether it's devotion ( "You and Me" ) , confrontation ( "Pre-Owned Heart" ) , mildly masochistic obsession ( "Give It Up" ) , desire ( "Something Else" ) or a romance in free fall ( "It's Not My Party" ) . What makes the album so memorable is its tonal consistency and D.R.'s deceptive vocals. At first listen he seems to have a limited range ( like the aforementioned Oakly ) but repeated listenings reveal subtle shadings that put across more than what's written on the lyric sheet ( unlike Oakly ) . On "Pre-Owned Heart" he snaps, "Get out of my face/Get out of my place/Why you acting like there ain't been changes?," and the scrotum-shriveling chill in his voice could cut glass.

Special Affections is the kind of recording that you could mistakenly play over and over with a lover, a big jug of white wine and a tomorrow that's wide open until the sunset. ( Think of Roxy Music's Avalon or Sade's Diamond Life. ) But the more you listen to it the more engaging it gets and the more it draws you in, the more it, uh, distracts you in unexpected ways. D.R.'s trick is to sound glacially cool and nakedly lusty at the same moment while revealing candid intentions and guarded moments like a striptease. And that the album is essentially a one-man show works all for the better, since a full band would crush the intimacy and clutter and defuse the focus of the music.

But if the album plays like an endlessly purring radio single D.R.'s show at the Empty Bottle was anything but that. Alternately bracing ( his jagged guitar shrieks ) , dramatically romantic ( the sweep of his piano playing and the whoosh of his synthesized beats ) and unpredictable ( his wild man dance-fits ) , this show was nothing short of riveting and made him, believe it or not, rather adorable. Dedicating his set to Dennis Rodman I got the impression that he was largely a kid at heart. The illustration on the lyric book for Special Affections is a collection of objects that he presumably holds close and dear; a basketball shoe, a cheeseburger, a cassette, a utilitarian pocket knife, a rainbow motif, a Slurpee, a disposable lighter and a hot-fudge sundae. But whether he's a kid or not hardly matters when you consider that this dancing SRO crowd wouldn't let the guy off the stage until after his third encore. I want some more of this...

First, here's the bad news about Antennas Up's debut: Two-thirds of the songs are about conflict, depression, domestic misery, lack of trust, misguided desire and oppression. The good news is that it's so hyperkinetic, original, catchy, well-written and -performed, percussive and damn yummy that it's impossible to get bummed out. Airy and driven, Antennas Up—by way of Kansas City, Mo., of all places—makes ribald funk that makes you want to cry, shake your ass and giggle all at the same time. With this kind of giddiness, resistance, to say the least, is futile.

Right up front is vocalist Lonnie Coleman, who sings with an earnestness that borders on religious frenzy. Dramatically the band is an extreme opposite; a wind-up gizmo with clicks, discombobulated voices hilariously popping up in the mix, computer beeps and '50s-era sound effects. But with all that business, the hooks and lyrical ideas push to the surface giving the cd an inventiveness that reeks of personality and wit. The mash-up sound is what you'd get if Oz's Tin Man got his heart along with a mean bass line, or if Clark Kent got deep in his mojo by way of a humanized Devo.

"High and Mighty Parade," an intimate romantic shout down that moves from personal to public to political without loosing it's focus could be a fight song for any disenfranchised group as Coleman barks, "please please stop judging me." The follow-up, "Don't Wait Up," offers a solution. Instead of going home Coleman allows himself to get lost in the allure of nightlife rather than have another evening of bickering ... or responsibility. Smack in the middle of the CD, things get goofy, then delirious.

"Outta Sight" is a head rush about grooving circa 1983, macho swagger, the right shoes, the right hip shake and the right invincible pick-up lines. The hero, er, daydreamer gets so lost in his fantasy that his final come-on, "I am a spaceship," morphs into "5P4C35HIP," Antennas Up's most insane moment. Over an intentionally artificial wall of burbling funk two computers flirt and negotiate a hook up of the human kind. In a flat tone he burps, "I am a spaceship," and her equally refrigerated voice croaks, "I want to ride you," and the result is goofy, snarky and weirdly sexy. "She's Evil" tops it with Coleman so mesmerized by the sight of some bitch-beauty diva that he loses his own identity. "Who the hell am I," he moans, knowing full well that if he knew what was good for him he'd stay as far away from that woman as humanly possible. He does and he can't, and though he's obviously losing a lot more than his heart, the tone in his voice suggests that he won't fight.

Let loose at the Beat Kitchen, Antennas Up was sartorially respectable ( ties, vests, slacks, dress shoes ) , frisky, blunt, downright polite and straight-up funky. With new front man Kyle Ackers, who resembles a younger, cuter Mickey Dolenz, they also got playful enough to tackle a punched up take on Prince's "Kiss" which blasted the set with a jolt of raw libido. What made this show, band and album so damn agreeable was the blatant and jolly appropriation of funk, disco, rap, synth pop and goofiness without apology. We should all be so, for lack of a better word, restrained. Obviously there's something going on down in Kansas.


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