Praxis Makes Perfect
, May 21st, 2013 11:47
Neon Neon's debut album, 2008's Stainless Style, was a whimsical but hugely enjoyable concept piece based on the rags-to-riches-and-back-to-bankruptcy life story of automobile executive, visionary and playboy John DeLorean. A collaboration between Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and electronic music maverick Boom Bip, Neon Neon created a smart, sleek pastiche of mid-eighties synth pop that was stylistically appropriate to its subject matter; a man whose most famous car creation was inextricably linked with iconic 1985 movie Back to the Future, and whose lifestyle seemed to typify the decade's excesses, most notably when DeLorean was embroiled in a cocaine smuggling plot in 1982, from which he was subsequently acquitted.
Now five years on Neon Neon are back with another biographical concept piece, this time dealing with pioneering Italian publisher and revolutionary sympathiser Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, produced in much the same synth pop style, but with a little less overt pop, fizz, or minor celebrity guest appearances. The first question is whether a recreation of 1980s electro-pop- a knowing mixture of hi-energy, pre-house club music, OMD, the Pet Shop Boys, early Madonna and Prefab Sprout- is so appropriate to a story that takes place in, and is very much a part of, the political and literary counter-culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and which concludes in murky circumstances in 1972. There's definitely more of a disconnection between musical setting and lyrical content compared to Stainless Style, but once you've accepted that this is just the way it's going to be, there's much to get your teeth into on Praxis Makes Perfect.
Born into one of Italy's wealthiest families in 1926, Feltrinelli took an early interest in the routine injustices suffered by his country's poor, and by the end of World War Two he had joined the Italian Communist Party, in time to take part in the overthrow of Mussolini's crumbling regime. Setting up his own radical publishing company, Feltrinelli Editore, in 1954, his most celebrated and important early publishing triumphs were Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago and Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lempedusa's historical masterpiece The Leopard. The attempts by the Soviet Union to suppress and halt publication of the former led Feltrinelli to leave the Communist Party, though he retained his left-wing beliefs and indeed spent much of the 1960s travelling the world, meeting with third world revolutionaries including Fidel Castro, and publishing their work.
In 1970 Feltrinelli took his convictions one step further and was a founder of minor left-wing militant organisation GAP - Gruppi di Azione Partigiana - one of many paramilitary organisations active during Italy's 'Years of Lead' in the 1970s. To put this in context, in the same year many of Feltrinelli's fellow businessmen and industrialists backed a neo-fascist coup that narrowly failed to overthrow the elected government. The decade to come would see wave after wave of riots, bombings and assassinations by groups on both the left and the right, including the notorious Red Brigade and several allegedly CIA-backed false flag operations intended to discredit Italy's legitimate Communist and Socialist parties, and to prevent them from gaining executive power. Many also suspect the involvement of the CIA or the Italian Secret Service in Feltrinelli's death; his body was found beneath an electricity pylon in 1972, supposedly killed by explosives he had intended to use himself.
Feltrinelli's story then is undoubtedly fascinating and ripe for exploration, though perhaps unavoidably Praxis Makes Perfect does little more than to skim the surface. The title track is a mostly instrumental overture that could be incidental music from Knight Rider or Air Wolf, over which actress Asia Argento summarises Feltrinelli's life in a terse, "your mission, should you choose to accept it" style. The effortlessly melodic 'The Jaguar' takes us back to Feltrinelli's childhood, growing up "in the shade of fascist architecture," while 'Dr Zhivago' chronicles his gradual political awakening alongside a brilliant chorus that sits just the right side of kitsch (incidentally, when Rhys sings "I was still a party animal" on the second verse, it took me several listens not to hear "I was still a Furry Animal").
'Hoops with Fidel' uses the metaphor of a bouncing beach ball for Feltrinelli's idealistic dream of utopian communism spreading around the globe, while 'Hammer & Sickle' reflects the disillusioning, dispiriting reality. 'Shopping (I Like To)' features a guest vocal from 'Boys Boys Boys' europop legend Sabrina, affecting all the enthusiasm of a cold, froth-free cappuccino on what remains a rather bland confection, despite referencing two tracks from the Pet Shop Boys' Actually album. The ebullient single, 'Mid-Century Modern Nightmare' picks up the pace, cramming an astute analysis of the rise of neo-liberal capitalist practise - and the need for grass roots resistance - into a brilliantly subversive one minute, fifty-nine seconds of perfect radio-friendly pop fodder.
After this sweetmeat though, the more subtle flavours of the last three tracks are harder to taste, and become somewhat top-heavy with narrative, over-reliant on the device of the closing spoken voiceover to keep the story moving. And there's a lot to pack in; barely twenty-seven minutes have passed before we're into the final eulogy of 'Ciao Feltrinelli.' The joyful creativity of the first half of the album is dissipated too soon, as though this 31-minute CD is at once too short and too long. When it's good it's great, and it's never bad; Gruff Rhys' lyrics are mostly thoughtful and tastefully poetic throughout, but Feltrinelli's complex tale perhaps needed to be fleshed out further, with more twists and turns and the peaks more evenly placed. The prospect of the songs being developed through extended praxis in Neon Neon's live shows alongside the National Theatre of Wales is an intriguing one however. Not perfect yet then, but a worthwhile practise nevertheless.