It’s a full five years since Neon Neon released Stainless Style; an effortlessly polished concept album about the life and times of charismatic engineer-entrepreneur John DeLorean. It is an LP that has in the intervening years taken on a thick veneer of authenticity, and it now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the sounds of the 1980s to which it is so indebted.
The formula clearly wasn’t broken, so it hasn’t been fixed. Unlike DeLorean, Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip have not tried to reinvent the wheel for their full-length sophomore, and have instead pointed their synths and sensibilities in the direction of another elusive, enigmatic figure of the 20th Century: Italian left-wing political activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – accidental discoverer and proud publisher of Doctor Zhivago – who was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 1972 at the age of 55.
Rich pickings, then, for Gruff and Bip (Bryan Hollon to his mum), and the pair don’t beat about the bush: Praxis Makes Perfect is crammed with literary snippets, realpolitik themes and guest spots from the likes of long-time co-conspirator Cate Le Bon, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, and bonafide Italians Asia Argento – daughter of director Dario – and Sabrina Salerno of Boys (Summertime Love) fame.
Yet for all the fresh blood, this is familiar territory. The synth squelching, slightly paranoid title track that opens proceedings is believably last-century, bringing to mind the type of Korg-composed numbers that soundtracked suspenseful scenes in The Equalizer – or, to go big screen, The Jewel Of The Nile. It’s nicely measured, staying just the right side of Garth Marenghi-style parody.
From there, Neon Neon recapture their magic: though The Jaguar is barely a stone’s throw from Stainless Style’s signature sound, it comes across as fresh, breezy and Metronomy-like; Dr Zhivago leverages Gruff’s impressive pop pedigree, thrusting his Hotel Shampoo LP back in time with a generous application of wetware percussion; Hoops With Fidel taps the brakes – its chorus reined in with surprising poignancy – before Hammer & Sickle closes out the album’s first half with an upbeat, Radio Ga Ga-style pop-rock blend.
But variety is most assuredly not the spice of Praxis Makes Perfect’s 30-minute life, as evidenced by the likes of Mid Century Modern Nightmare, which comes across as a direct, almost beat-for-beat port of I Told Her On Alderaan; toe-tappingly great, yes, but also something of a rehash. By the same token, Shopping (I Like To) is arguably the highlight of the entire affair – Salerno’s deadpan juxtaposed against an 8-bit track – but slots a little too comfortably into the Neon Neon canon.
Nevertheless, the album ascends in the end, its winning blend of fact, fiction and legend finding particular highs in the crashing, chaotic Listen To The Rainbow and Ciao Feltrinelli, a four-minute closing credit that grows steadily into its remit with faux-mandolin riffs and lyrical sax. Side project, collaboration or fully fledged act, Neon Neon have a Mercury nomination under their belts – and now a follow-up LP that, for better or worse, peddles the same worthy wares.