With recent shows here by queer favorites SSION, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Gossip it can't be denied that October, the month of Halloween, is actually gay Christmas in Chicago. The double bill of Canadian wunderkind Diamond Rings (aka John O'Regan) and Chicago's Baathhaus (fka Daan) at The Empty Bottle promised to be the capper for a musical year that's been gayer than ever.
Of course, it's amusing to think that on the same night that Streisand was crooning "People" in a custom-made gown costing tens of thousands of dollars in front of a packed house at the United Center, a mile away a shirtless Patrick Andrews of Baathhaus had chocolate syrup (or what looked like it) oozing out of his mouth while dancing a mad jig as if his life depended on it. Who says gay life is dull in Chicago?
Regardless of what was going on elsewhere, the double bill this evening was all about O'Regan's sophomore album, Free Dimensional (Astralwerks Records). When Diamond Rings' Special Affections (Astralwerks) hit in 2010, it became a surprise indie smash from out of nowhere. Written, produced and performed by O'Regan, the album was ignited by the single "All Yer Songs" and a freak media storm (due to a lawsuit that backfired). O'Regan jumped on the buzz, jumped in a van with his father, toured for months on end and didn't stop until Special Affections became a bona fide hit. The new record is bigger, more polished and almost epic in its sound and I have to admit that the last time I saw a young artist grab for the brass ring with such drive was in 1984although the name of the album that time was Purple Rain.
So with a bigger budget, astronomical expectations and the guiding hand of co-producer Damien Taylor (Bjork, The Killers), it's a little disappointing that Free Dimensional tries so hard and feels so hollow. Taylor tries his hardest to make the music dazzle on an otherworldly level but everything here is so crisp, shiny and airtight that it sounds almost bloodless. Worse is the almost overpowering density of the production. The phrase "Wall of Sound," used to describe Phil Spector's production style, doesn't fit here; Free Dimensional doesn't feel like being surrounded by a wall but rather clobbered into submission with it. O'Regan himself sounds thoroughly contained in all the bombast, and though his lower vocal registers still project attitude and sexiness, he sounds almost mechanized and soulless. What sounded effortlessly sexual, subversive and engaging on Special Affections sounds canned and freeze-dried here.
This is not to say that Free Dimensional is cold, uninteresting, boring, uninvolving or a disappointment, by any means; it's just a different animal then the debut. "I'm Just Me" may qualify as a state-of-the-art club anthem with its overwhelming production, booming crescendos, and O'Regan's deadpan vocals but played at home or on headphones despite the recording's sonic warmth it feels off putting. The killer track here, though, is "Runaway Love," which doesn't allow its techno propulsion to obscure an army of guitars and drums or an irresistible hook. The song is the only place on the album where O'Regan's smarts seem to shine through; although he still sounds detached, he confesses the most heartfelt sentiment here ("I want to be the light to your darkness/I want to shine like gold.") while he and Taylor wisely put the bass line in its proper place while treating the song like a pop single. "Runaway Love" seems to click because it doesn't try to impress or overwhelm.
None of which says anything about O'Regan's show at The Empty Bottle. Rather than performing solo, as he did on his first tour, he came with a full band that made the songs on Free Dimensional stand up and jump like a begging puppy. "Day and Night," "Hand Over My Heart" and "(I Know) What I'm Made Of" still sounded big and thunderous, but with three other musicians playing along the distance seemed to evaporate.
It didn't matter that the band was tormented by a temperamental computer console or O'Regan's demonically possessed microphone stand, or that this time O'Regan didn't go into his thrash-rock mode while indulging in fits of freeform dance tantrums. What did matter, especially to this SRO crowd, was that the jam kept moving. What really betrayed the CD was O'Regan strapping on one of his electric guitars and burning through the new songs with the kind of blunt charisma that the new album lacks. Under all the glam, thunder, synths, computerized embellishments and monstrous techno beats, O'Regan can't hide the fact that he is a star after all.
If O'Regan was fighting a losing battle with a mile-thick production, it was almost impossible to get what Baathhaus was aiming for under all its jokes. The group is actually three actors/vocalists (Dan Foley, Jesse Young and Patrick Andrews) and a barefoot drummer (Jesse Hozeny) who eschew a queer boy-band take on performance art. Compared to some of the shows mentioned in the recent cover story on them in the Chicago Reader, this one may have been the tamest of their short career (no blood-soaked stages, no hearts being ripped out, no bondage gear), which certainly doesn't mean that this set was not action-packed. What we got this time were politically correct anthems (one song had the gleeful chorus, "fairies, freaks, fatties ... FRONT OF THE LINE!!!"), snazzy snarky gay-boi anthems (another jolly rave-up had compact firecracker Andrews ranting about the delicious flavors of men the world over), crisp boy-band choreography, a show-stopping prolonged lust-soaked French kiss with a buff hirsute audience member, lots of fake blood oozing out of the quartet's mouths in choreographed unison and fistfuls of glitter. Unfortunately for me, I was close to the stage and got the business end of that glitter. Now it's all over my housethe bathroom, my bed, the living room, my camera equipment, even my skivvies.
My guess is that Baathhaus planned it that way. This band seems to be about celebrating queerness in all its varieties without limiting it to politics or sexuality, but embracing it as an all-encompassing existential mindset. By design, the band's glam/pop/techno doesn't limit itself to homo appeal and it was obvious that when Andrews danced around shirtless with the aforementioned dripping goo, he gave as much joy to the straight men and women in the crowd as he did to the gay boys. These guys aren't merely a queer celebration but an invite for every man, woman and child to let his or her freak flag fly. The word is that the band will be booking more shows in the near future. That makes this year's holiday season seem that much warmer.