Familiar with the life and times of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli? You know, the son of a wealthy Italian family who gave up a lavish life to become a leftwing publisher and militant?
If you weren’t aware of what Signor Feltrinelli got up to before his suspicious death in 1972, the second album from Neon Neon should certainly inspire you to look into it a little more - Praxis Makes Perfect is based on the events of Feltrinelli’s life in much the same way as the duo's first album of synth-pop wonder was born out of the life of John DeLorean.
A sample of the track titles from Praxis Makes Perfect offers tantalizing glimpses into Feltrinelli’s life – ‘Hoops with Fidel’ is a self-explanatory nod to one of the more surreal games of basketball you can imagine, while ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and ‘The Leopard’ refers to two giant works of literature that Feltrinelli brought to the attention of the wider world through his publishing company. If you only take one thing away from this record, it’s some brilliant factoids to bore your friends with.
Except, as this is a record that Gruff Rhys has played a fundamental part in, there’s a lot more to it than that. Just like the first Neon Neon record, Praxis Makes Perfect is stuffed with the poppier end of Rhys’ material, the aforementioned ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and ‘Hoops With Fidel’ bouncing along on choruses that stay just the right side of insanely catchy, while ‘Listen To The Rainbow’ shuffles along like the lost soundtrack to a Seventies children’s educational science programme while the lightest of vocals drifts along on top. That it then all comes crashing down in a mess of saxophone and the shouting of left-wing book titles only seems to add to the charm.
The focus with Neon Neon tends to be towards Rhys, which is understandable given that his is the most prominent voice, and it’s presumably his lyrics that tie it all together – as usual, his English as a second language approach creates some wonderfully enigmatic phrases, not least “look to the sky, this violence of landscape/they always said you had a feeling for the earth” that opens ‘The Jaguar’. However, it’s important to consider the impact of the other half of Neon Neon on this record, as it’s the musical side of things that drags Rhys away from his traditional indie-folk-pop territory.
The presence of Boom Bip (American producer Bryan Hollan) in the Neon Neon engine room isn’t as striking here as on Stainless Style, where Rhys’s vocals were often placed against a harsh hip-hop inspired backdrop, but the subtle nudging towards more unexpected terrain is what makes Neon Neon stand out from Gruff’s solo work or his time as a Super Furry Animal. Whether it’s the wonky synth solo on ‘Dr. Zhivago’, the frenetic keyboard rhythm that drives ‘Mid-Century Modern Nightmare’ or the saxathon of the closing ‘Ciao Feltrinelli’, there’s something decidedly off-kilter about the tracks that are created when these these two get together.
Praxis Makes Perfect only suffers in comparison to its predecessor in that it lacks a clear standout track in the same vein as Stainless Style’s ‘I Told Her On Alderaan’, but it works better as a cohesive record, dipping you into a strange mix of left-wing politics and cheery synth pop. What on earth the proposed stage version will consist of, I couldn’t even start to imagine, but just like most of the projects Gruff Rhys frazzles into life, I can’t wait to find out.
8Aaron Lavery's Score