It’s the eternal pop music conundrum: what do you do when your one-off side project actually becomes one of the most successful things you’ve ever done?
The Postal Service learned this lesson the hard way. While Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello’s one-off synth-pop opus Give Up was recently treated to a deluxe 10th anniversary edition, interviews surrounding the release revealed that while the duo did try recording a follow up to the fluke hit, things never really materialized, as the duo soon realized they were doing it for all the wrong reasons, and the vibe just wasn’t the same (which is why cover songs and remixes and other assorted ephemera was trickled out over the years without much fanfare). In short, the project was lightning in a bottle, and instead of cluttering or distorting its legacy, the duo decided to leave it be, noting that everything looked perfect from far away.
Neon Neon, while less prominent, are pretty much in the exact same scenario. A duo consisting of hip-hop producer Boom Bip and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, these two guys decided to meld their talents together to create an ’80s-indebeted synth-pop concept album about the life and times of playboy and inventor John DeLorean. While the whole thing looked silly on paper, Stainless Style was brilliant in its execution, using the octagon-drum aesthetic as a launching pad for some truly incredible pop songs, ranging from “Dream Cars” to “I Told Her on Alderaan” to the winking “Michael Douglas”. Stainless Style‘s only drawback was its three detours into twerk-filled rap breaks, which proved ill-fitting to the rest of the album’s mood, but these moments weren’t enough to derail the album, and the guys even managed to score a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their efforts.
Yet Stainless Steel was released all the way back in March of 2008, and very little has been heard of the group since then, which is no big loss for them given how prolific they are by themselves. However, a humble photo of Italian publisher and political activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli posted on the band’s Instagram in early 2013 with the caption “NN2” told fans that yes, Neon Neon was back. Now that their new album, Praxis Makes Perfect, is finally in our hands after five long years, it’s safe to say that Bip and Rhys should have followed the Postal Service’s lead and just stayed silent this whole time.
Make no mistake: Feltrinelli is a compelling figure, having been a noted political activist in Italy while also starting his own publishing company, his greatest contribution to culture at large arguably being his smuggling of the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago to Milan after it was refused to be published in Boris Pasternak’s homeland of the USSR. As such, Neon Neon take their round in a new direction, crafting an album that is starker in nature, more minimalist, using the same synths as before but no longer embellishing them with the bells and whistles that made Stainless Style‘s tracks absolutely glisten with justified excess. A quick listen to the title track that opens the album tells you just about everything you need to know: some steadily-building digital toms, dulled synth tones, and a distorted narration explaining everything you need to know. In fact, this recorded-through-the-radio narration effect comes up quite a bit over the course of Praxis‘s scant 31 minutes. In truth, this move is quite puzzling: Stainless Steel worked because it never hit you over the head with its DeLorean concept, instead letting the songs speak for themselves. If you wanted to dance to them, great. If you wanted to read into them and see how they fit in sculpting an arc of DeLorean’s life, you could do that as well, but you weren’t forced either way. When the narrator of Praxis‘ “The Leopard” emerges near the end of the song, you get hear plainspoken lines about emergency cabinet meetings and referendums, tying to Feltrinelli’s political story. In truth, it’s nowhere near as important or compelling as the guys think it is.
As the album goes on, it’s obvious that Feltrinelli’s story has become an absolute obsession of the duo, almost every lyric crafted about his life in some way or another, ultimately making the disc draw stylistic parallels to David Byrne & Fatboy Slim’s 2010 effort Here Lies Love, about the life of Imelda Marcos. That album, however, succeeded because even with the specificity of detail that was in the lyrics, it adopted the dissociative Stainless Style concept wherein the songs worked standalone as well as part of a larger narrative. Praxis‘ songs are too closely tied to their subject to work outside of the album in any notable context, which leaves us with the album itself — a confused mess of synth noodlings and half-formed ideas.
Tracks like “Dr. Zhivago” and “Hammer & Sickle” borrow a lot from the ’80s synth-pop playbook, but Rhys sings his lyrics all in a fairly even keel, rarely going into his notable falsetto, which is a perfectly fine choice but it ultimately keeps listeners at a bit of a distance: his vocals feel more like they’re being used as texture than a way to convey a message, which is a real darn shame given how even with the biographical lyrics that dote Praxis, there’s some good stuff still to be found. “Shopping (I Like To)” may very well be the album’s highlight, using a chirpy little melody that sounds like it could be an old grocery store jingle until about 1:25 when some spritely piano comes in, and it lifts its bare bone melody into something more appealing, lively, and transcendent. Heck, the guys even do a little Pet Shop Boys quoting in the song’s final minute, showcasing how the fun vibes of Stainless Style weren’t completely jettisoned for this weightier concept.
The quality of the songs vary wildly. “The Jaguar” is a fine piece of mid-tempo pop that very much typifies Neon Neon’s aesthetic, but the super-slick acoustic guitar elements feel artificial to a fault: not in the cute way but in the soulless way. It’s a bit of a slap-dash song whose sequel (the bleak “The Leopard”) doesn’t do much to aide its cause. Even “Mid Century Modern Nightmare”, a single that clocks in at under two minutes, feels more like a Stainless Style imitation than it does a track created out of the group’s genuine sense of fun. “Listen to the Rainbow”, conversely, rides a lively melody that breaks into a wildly joyous amount of saxophone solos after the half-way point … and then the screaming radio narration comes in, deadening the song’s ultimate impact.
Make no mistake: Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip are ambitious fellows, and by following up their DeLorean party album with a quieter, less flashy concept disc about the life of a noted Italian Communist publisher is no doubt a risky move. However, the album is missing that quintessential “something”, their lyrics more pointed yet somehow less focused, their journey meandering, their use of narration forcing the concept upon the listener instead of letting it happen naturally. After five years, it’s very easy to welcome Neon Neon back into our lives with open arms. After listening to the album, however, perhaps we can expect something a bit more focused in five more.