As I wrote the other day, I actually was suckered in to buying a CD I’d never heard of, much less heard, while browsing the used bins at Harvest Records on Record Store Day last weekend – simply due to its awesome cover design! Reader JT is curious to know what I think of it so here goes a review of a relatively contemporary album on the Post-Punk Monk blog. Don’t get used to this! I can’t do this too often; it’ll weaken my brand!
I was drawn into the cold, antiseptic packaging of this disc and imagined a frigid, synthetic, and sleek music construction. What I call autobahn musik. A good example is John Foxx’s track “My Face.” Fastpulse eurosynth motorik beats ala Moroder but most emphatically lacking the warmth [or at least femininity] that Moroder brought to classic tracks like “I Feel Love.” What Neon Neon delivered was quite a bit different but no less wonderful. This 2008 album was the result of a pair up by two musicians I had not heard of: Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals [whom I’ve at least heard of] and one Boom Bip [a.k.a. Bryan Hollan]. Apparently, Bip contacted Rhys with the conceit of making an “eighties record” and Rhys took the bait. They constructed a concept album based on the life of high-flying auto-designer-slash-superstar-slash-coke-dealer John DeLorean. Hence the cover art.
The album opens up with “Neon Theme.” It sounds like something that Arthur Baker would have remixed for 12″ in 1983. When the brief scene-setter ends with simu-Simmons drum pads in the outro you know that Neon Neon have accurately captured the musical milieu of the DeLorean zeitgeist. Score one for some knowing near-camp. When the next cut plays, it’s clear that this project is aiming higher than that; and for the most part, succeeding. Wildly.
“Dream Cars” is the first vocal track and the presence of Rhys is pleasingly close to sounding like Pete Townshend of The Who around the time of “Empty Glass.” There’s a yearning dignity to the first brace of songs that captures the optimism of what DeLorean tried to accomplish, even as the seeds of his destruction are contained within the melancholy eddies that flow amongst the winning melodies. The fuzztone bass riffs give this song an impact that reaches beyond the b-grade synth-pop and New Wave palette that informs the basic sound of Neon Neon. The lyrics are symmetrically graceful and the melody is glorious.
“Dream girls – in cool cars. Cold girls – in dream cars”
Next up is the fantastic “I Told Her On Alderaan.” This sounds like the best track The Cars never performed and is gifted with a hook strong enough to land a shark with! The flanged guitar is marvelous. The gentle application of Fairlight® choral effects is lifted straight from early Art Of Noise [see “Moments In Love”] and the only thing I would change about the track is that I would kick the xylophones a bit higher in the mix. They are the icing on a sumptuous cake. The pace changes for “Racquel.” The track opens up with a fitting latin percussion breakdown – executed on a drum machine, of course, until the slightly melancholy synths enter the mix about 90 seconds in, giving the tune a bittersweet edge. The tune examines the affair DeLorean allegedly had with Racquel Welch. The plaintive chorus will stick in your mind long afterward. And next for something completely different.
The market for this album could not help but notice that there were three rap cuts on this retro-New-Wave pastiche album. Many reviews I’ve read have pointed this out as a possible misjudgement on the part of the creators. Some people think that they have no place on the album at all. I love this album so much I can pretty much overlook two of the rap tracks and accept them in the flow of the album, jarring or not. The first of these, “Trick For Treat” manages to be the best of the cuts that merges rap with New Wave [it’s not that paradoxical as both genres were concurrent]. It doesn’t hurt that the melodies and countermelodies of this song are intoxicatingly arranged for maximum dynamic impact. Yes, as long as you’re going to have rap, if you can invest it with a melodic structure, you’ll go far in roping in my ears. As the cut progresses, Eastern scales waft in on Black Sea breezes and gypsy violin harkens back to the DeLorean family origins in Romania. Pretty damned cool for a “rap track.”
Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is almost a one man band on the melodic “Steel Your Girl” that almost completely eschews synths and drum machines for a straightforward pop rock approach. “I Lust U” sounds for all the world like the second cousin to Laid Back’s classic drug tune “White Horse.” The middle eight though, sounds like it was snipped from a classic New Order track. Cate LeBon duets with Rhys very nicely on the track as they recount the many doomed affairs DeLorean had. Then comes a track I’ve begun to skip through.
“Sweat Shop” uses femme rappers Yo Majesty to draw parallels between prostitution and auto manufacturing. Unlike the first cut with rappers, this one is largely free of melody. The blunt and cliché sex talk doesn’t strike me as very interesting, even when class issues are brought into it. Fortunately, the excellent “Belfast” follows; which is a tune that Nick Rhodes should have killed for many years ago. It sounds like the great lost Duran Duran track that was never recorded between the first album and “Rio.” The tightly sequenced middle eight gives off hints of Wendy Carlos to boot!
My favorite tune on the whole album follows. “Michael Douglas” sounds for all the world like an early EBM classic; not a million miles away from Front 424’s “Headhunter,” only with better lyrics and vocals! Apparently DeLorean was such a jet setting playboy that he counted Michael Douglas as one of his cohorts; spending idle time at pool parties in the company of the glitterati. Moreover, he coveted Douglas’ chin and apparently had an implant to get “the look” he thought he needed. This tune dives deep into the damaged psyche of its subject and is well served by the baleful, curdled synths. I really want an extended version of this. Now.
“Cause you’ll see my reflection – in Michael Douglas’ mirrored sunglasses. You’ll see my perfection – in Michael Douglas’ mirrored sunglasses. You’ll see my subjection – in Michael Douglas’ mirrored sunglasses. The look of rejection – in Michael Douglas’ mirrored sunglasses.”
The album is capped by another rap track; “Luxury Pool,” a biographical overview of DeLorean as a “player.” Well, he was certainly that. This track is a relief after the previous rap cut with Yo Majesty, but is not really compelling. The album ends with the sermonette-like title track, which is based on DeLorean’s favorite bible verse as revealed in his autobiography.
“My enemies had destroyed themselves in their effort to be my undoing. I must admit I identified with King David when he wrote the third Psalm: ‘O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!’ “
This is one heck of a tasty project, but its one-off nature makes me shy away from wanting more from Neon Neon. While it was most emphatically not what the packaging led me to expect [let’s say a whole album that sounded like Japan’s “European Son,” minus that song’s warmth], I nonetheless am really listening to this one a lot – to the point of it dominating my listening this week. And who knows for how much long it will last since the new Cold Cave album is as good or better! Anyone who knows me will certainly find a lot to love here. The songs are catchy as hell, the artistic conceit that was the starting point makes for a decidedly different “concept album” in this day and age. Some might look askance at the inclusion of three rap cuts in the program, but listeners should give them a chance before dismissing the project out of hand. I’d go as far as calling ‘Trick For Treat” excellent and almost as good as the rest of the album. But remember. I’m the guy who’s nuts over “Red Carpet Massacre!” At the very least, you can download just the cuts you like, and you will love many of these tracks.
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