In the mid-’00s, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and hip-hop producer/artist Boom Bip teamed up to form the synth-pop project Neon Neon. The pair’s 2008 debut album, Stainless Style, is an underrated collection of frothy ’80s synth-pop and hip-hop made with vintage keyboards and gear (which explains the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”-esque beats on the sublime “Raquel”). However, Stainless Style also has a seedy edge, mainly because it’s a concept album imagining the trials and tribulations of automobile magnate/lothario John DeLorean, the namesake of the Back To The Future car.
Neon Neon’s long-awaited second full-length, Praxis Makes Perfect, is also a concept album, albeit a more obscure one: It’s based on the life of the late Italian political activist and publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was responsible for discovering and distributing the novels Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard but died in 1972. Sonically, it’s immediately identifiable as Neon Neon, between the John Hughes-movie-soundtrack keyboards, electronic beats, and Rhys’ mush-mouthed vocals. But as might be expected with more enigmatic (and somber) subject matter, Praxis Makes Perfect doesn’t always have the generous hooks and lighthearted feel of Stainless Style. The early-’80s AOR gold homage “Dr. Zhivago” and the tropical “Hoops With Fidel” are sluggish, while the melancholy “Ciao Feltrinelli”—on which Italian actress/singer Asia Argento reads Feltrinelli’s biographical information atop brooding, Miami Vice sax wails—drags.
These momentum-sucking songs are frustrating, because overall, Praxis Makes Perfect has broader influences and is more interesting than Neon Neon’s past work. The trashy robotic synth-pop blurt “Mid Century Modern Nightmare” (which features Cate Le Bon on vocals) sounds like a lost Magnetic Fields song; the strident “Shopping (I Like To)” resembles a tougher Pet Shop Boys; and the surging “Hammer & Sickle” is an ace update of the motorik disco favored by early Human League. Even the rhythm-light “The Leopard”—which matches eerie floating keyboards to Rhys’ Eeyore-like vocals—and the sleepy-eyed synth-punk jam “The Jaguar” interpret proto-new wave in mesmerizing ways. But in the end, Praxis Makes Perfect is an uneven mix of gleaming ’80s homages and tunes burdened by their own ambition.