An electro homage to the rich communist who published Dr Zhivago
What would Italian multi-millionaire and communist revolutionary Giangiacomo Feltrinelli say if he was told that, four decades after his mysterious death at the foot of a high-voltage power line, allegedly from an exploding pack of malfunctioning dynamite he was carrying at the time, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and hip-hop producer Boom Bip would record a postmodern electro-pop paean to his incredible life? Probably “what’s electro-pop?”, then possibly, “I have better things to be worrying about, like radical left-wing politics and not getting blown up under power lines.”
If you’re scratching your head, don’t worry. This is not a political broadcast by the Socialist Workers Party. It’s just that Neon Neon’s conceptually dense second album exists purely to tell the story of a historical figure you’re not expected to know much about, channelling the very real struggles of his life from the ’50s to the ’70s through the detached medium of ’80s synth-pop and shaggy indie. It’s as unlikely but inevitable as Dennis Rodman hanging out with Kim Jong-Un in North Korea. So just roll with it.
Following 2008’s excellent ‘Stainless Style’, which sonically reimagined the life and times of car manufacturer John DeLorean, the wittily titled ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’ pushes the life-in-a-concept-album format into a whole different arena. Feltrinelli, its protagonist, was a daring publisher and thinker who taunted the Soviet Union in 1957 by publishing Doctor Zhivago, and later hung out with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on a righteous search for some heady, next level socialism. Both are recounted here in the sweetly catching ‘Dr Zhivago’ and ‘Hoops With Fidel’. The latter sounds like a hazy, ‘Love Kraft’-era SFA cut, and is a key part of a record that’s heavy on intrigue and curveballs. Here’s another: über-boobed retro pin-up Sabrina Salerno, the woman behind queasy novelty ’80s hit ‘Boys (Summertime Love)’, pops up on the twinkling ‘Shopping (I Like To)’. It’s all a bit too much.
Ironically, the depth of the source material shows up the problem with concept albums – no matter how great the idea, it still needs killer hooks. ‘Stainless Style’ did this effortlessly with tracks like ‘Belfast’ and ‘Raquel’ etching themselves into your mind instantly, but tracks here such as the merely competent ‘Mid-Century Modern Nightmare’ require you to spend an afternoon with Wikipedia before their content can be fully appreciated.
Ultimately the confusion and convolution is all part of the charm on this adventure into a world of history and imagination. It doesn’t hit the peaks of ‘Stainless Style’, but is still a record worth investing time in. At the very least, you’ll learn to be more careful with dynamite around power lines.