Gruff Rhys is an unstoppable force. A selection of his recent activities include a quest for the lost Welsh tribes of Patagonia; a collaboration with home-made Brazilian noise merchant Tony da Gatorra; and an album based on his collection of miniature shampoos. In another sideline, or possibly mainline, he is engaged in a two-man quest to revive the concept album as Neon Neon with Boom Bip. It is five years since Stainless Style, Neon Neon’s synth groove album about buccaneering car designer John DeLorean and now they’re back, with a mini-opera even less predictable than the last.
Praxis Makes Perfect is a ten-track set about Italian publisher and left-wing revolutionary Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Neon Neon provide a helpful primer to his astonishing life, with songs covering his publication of The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the best selling Italian novel of all time; of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union; his career as a communist, associating with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; his founding of the left-wing ‘partisan’ group, GAP; and his death while apparently planting a bomb near Milan.
Feltrinelli’s story is an amazing one, little known outside Italy. Neon Neon make the less-than-intuitive decision to tell it using smooth synths, funk and driving 80s beats, more clearly relevant to the era on Stainless Style. Conceptually this should not work, but somehow the result is inspired.
Tracks range from melancholy, affecting tributes (‘The Leopard’, with its washes of shimmering guitar); stone cold funk (‘Dr Zhivago’ – “Doctor Zhivago / I’m just waiting for a cold embargo / to be lifted and I’ll bathe in your success and golden light”); to the hilarious (‘Shopping (I Like To)’ which features the ultimate stamp of 80s trash-pop approval in Sabrina Salerno of ‘Boys, Boys, Boys’ fame). Regular collaborator Cate le Bon duets on ‘Mid-Century Modern Nightmare’ – “They’re rooting up your future / while sipping cups of tea” – and snippets from a biography of Feltrinelli are read by Italian film legend, Asia Argento. There are no weak tracks and it’s all over in 40 minutes, a minor miracle of focus, story-telling, irrepressible tunes and devotion to the politics of social equality.
DeLorean and Feltrinelli, capitalist and communist, may not appear to have much in common on the surface, but both were inspired mavericks who did exactly as they pleased, for better or for worse. Fortunately for us, Gruff Rhys is cast from the same mould and is currently pursuing a remarkable run of highly original, understated, fabulously perverse projects. For those who’ve worked out how good he really is, there are few better British, or indeed Welsh, musicians out there and certainly none with the nerve to tap such deranged source material. And there’s a stage show based on Praxis