Neon Neon - Stainless Style (Lex, 2008)
A concept album based on the rise and fall of playboy engineer John DeLorean relying heavily on recycled 80s production values doesn’t necessarily sound like one of 2008’s most appetising prospects. Yet any album combining the talents of Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys and Anticon production maestro Bryan ‘Boom Bip’ Hollon has to be worthy of some attention. The two first collaborated on the track ‘Dos and Don’ts’ from Boom Bip’s 2005 album ‘Blue Eyed in the Red Room’. So pleasing were the results that a long form project became a certainty. This makes Rhys one of the most prolific artists currently at work, having released this, his excellent solo album ‘Candylion’ and a Super Furry Animals album all in the space of the last twelve months.
Whilst the album sounds deliberately dated, it inadvertently captures much of the current zeitgeist. The opening instrumental theme and percussion heavy ‘Racquel’ (yes, it really is an ode to Racquel Welch) closely resemble Hot Chip, whilst there are also further hints of robotic funk and even tinges of the same soft rock influences that have informed the likes of Yeasayer. Yet Rhys and Hollon are careful enough to steer the project away from either vanity or mere parody. This collection works superbly because of its extended exploration of the contrast between mechanical coldness and human warmth. It transpires that there is something peculiarly affecting in the narrative arc from hedonistic celebration to unexpected defeat and alienation.
The theme is introduced right from the very outset. ‘Dream Cars’ is set to a devilishly dirty groove, but with its edges smoothed by Rhys’ saccharine vocal line. He sings of ‘dream girls in cold cars’ and ‘cold girls in dream cars’, neatly summarising the parallels between triumph of engineering and sexual adventure. The juxtaposition is established even more explicitly on the hilarious ‘Trick For Treat’, a deliriously entertaining mix of games console sounds, rapping from Spank Rock and falsetto vocals (‘she looks cold, but warm enough to dip my pinkie in!’). The brilliantly titled ‘Steel Your Girl’ develops the theme further, in more wistful and reflective style, all delicate backing vocals and pretty guitar arpeggios.
Beneath its reconstituted sheen, ‘Stainless Style’ is a perceptive reflection on the excesses of 1980s capitalism. Everything is subordinated to personal ambition, the slinky but ultimately mechanical ‘I Lust U’ claiming ‘I love you if the price is right’. The factory closure lament that is ‘Belfast’ (‘I took you for granted like so many in my day/I built my empire and threw it all away’) and the cautionary tale that is ‘Luxury Pool’ capture the damaged and isolated flipside of the album’s initial excesses. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all this is the way different elements of the era’s pop music are deployed to craft particular moods. The OMD-esque pop of ‘Belfast’ is tinged with regret, whilst the outrageous funk of ‘Sweat Shop’ creates a steamy swamp for the track’s musings on sex. Elsewhere, there’s a reasonable helping of infectious processed pop, complete with intrusive drums and irresistible melodies that help to encapsulate the era’s temptations and vices.
‘Stainless Style’ is a brilliantly crafted record that ultimately transcends its core purpose. It could easily be reduced to the three words with which Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout famously dismissed Bruce Springsteen – ‘cars and girls’ – but, in the event, it’s amazing what can be made from these core ingredients.