(Secret City Records)
Though bedrooms themselves offer a thrilling range of possible activity, the records conspicuously described as being produced within them often tend heavily towards romantic miserablism. Such is the case with Special Affections, the home-recorded debut by pop cobbler John O�€™Regan, who, as frontman of rock band D�€™Urbervilles, is a veteran of Toronto�€™s clubs, but has gained wider acclaim over the past year or two for his dolled-up solo venture, Diamond Rings. His previously circulated singles like, “All Yr Songs” and “Someone Else,” are collected here, alongside eight new tracks, nearly all of them establishing a dude who knows how to deliver dour but sticky hooks in three-to-five-minute packages. Which doesn�€™t make the act of opening each in succession any less tiring.
O�€™Regan�€™s got a bit of Stephin Merritt gravel in his voice, a timbre that makes you automatically assume whatever he�€™s singing must be clever in a dry, arched-eyebrow sort of way. And the songwriter is capable of fresh turns of phrase; the humidly minimal “Give It Up” evocatively captures bohemian squalor in lines like “cut my hair in a kitchen chair, in a kitchen full of booze.” His literate baritone often makes it sound like The National gone electro (and nowhere near as terrifying as that description sounds). He�€™s got gravitas, but with a caveat. When the sung sentiments are further investigated, you�€™ll find a lot of stock phrases just slyly tweaked, or not even. Hearts are worn on sleeves, people pick themselves up off the floor, something or another is taken “higher than the blue in the sky.”
Musically, the album�€™s built on canned beats, chunky keyboard rolls, and interludes of lighter, spritely piano. It all sounds well-conceived, tasteful, a little by-the-numbers, maybe. That Special Affections is so on-the-nose is both a strength and an ultimate shortcoming. No great effort is required to “get” this music: it�€™s right in front of you, waiting to be fully absorbed and sung along to by the time the chorus comes back around on listen one. Those who�€™ve immersed themselves in the history of catchy-yet-intimate indie-pop are going to be waiting its entire length for any real surprise, though. Rather than subverting a well-established form to express a unique viewpoint, it ends up feeling like a redesigned packaging scheme tasked to imbue an old product with new pep. Deeply intoned bedroom pop: Now with rainbow eye make-up!