Combined Rating: 75%
It’s absolutely no surprise that Stainless Style is a good record. Stainless Style is absolutely nothing more than what it was reared to be: the merry, slightly humorous confluence of two pop artists that have never attempted to quiet the roar of their retro (take that big word for all its bigness) influences while still building bloated oeuvres that should, empirically, wander and annoy, incomprehensibly overreaching until the veneer is see-through. That wandering and annoying doesn’t happen, and it never has, at least for Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip. For MGMT or, less obnoxiously, Hercules and Love Affair and Yeasayer, it has, because either the regional/chronological palate from which these artists are painting has too many colors, tones, and synthetics or they just ape their forebears and give less of a reason why, more of a reason why not. Understandably, that’s all fine and dandy (pun intended) with a big loaded “pop” on top, making the world right again and dressing kitsch in the pallor of marketable, if not critical, intrigue, but Neon Neon succeeds as simply as the Super Furry Animals ever did, softly folding Technicolor, psychedelia (drug use), anachronism, electro-sugar, and a scathing but obvious wit into something that doesn’t breathe through any of those, instead contemporizing a compendium of ’80s tropes and, especially, Neo-Futurism into a record that seems new, embracing the, let’s say, immediacy of our, erm, times.
So, in that spirit, I’ll venture to adopt a cynical tact and point out where Stainless Style falters—I mean, really flops, hard—where it allows its disco biscuits a bit too much time in the oven (only coke joke, I promise) and abandons the simplistic focus of the rest of the record for something affrontingly horny and stupid. Because, OK, Rhys and Hollon have already couched their grooves and sun-bleached, sonorous bleeps with a synecdoche, never so inane as the decade and decade’s sound it easily stands in for, loosely championing engineer, doomed Detroit entrepreneur, and vaginal magnate John DeLorean in order to place a salient satirical focus on their, as Rhys has called it, “bonkers disco record.” But “Trick For Treat,” and later the weightless “Sweat Shop,” seem to miss the punchline altogether, never toying with the shallow fallbacks and protuberances of the man-in-spotlight but just, guiltlessly, emulating the mess at hand. Of course, Spank Rock and Har Mar Superstar (the morbidly obese man’s Prince) are behind “Trick For Treat,” which makes sense enough, and Har Mar’s falsetto chorus, though biographically accurate and one of the saddest, most indulgent moments on the record, gurgles with enough bodily fluids to out-sleaze even the notoriously shameless Naeem Juwan (“warm enough to dip my pinky in!”). Boom Bip’s siren synths, aimless, and peanut brittle snares, boring, come together as if cobbled in the minutes before all the guests squeezed into the studio in between herpes-acquiring sessions, and Rhys barely exists, attempting an intro and coda that fake some class, kinda like when Ari saves Lloyd from the big bad gay man on Entourage. “Sweat Shop” could be described identically, though the synths grimace with sinister thoughts, between sticky walls, and Rhys atonally jerks through the brimstone. All that moaning makes me uncomfortable. And Ranch dressing? For reals?
Otherwise, Stainless Style is an effortless blast. “I Lust U” is ceaselessly, insanely catchy; Welsh singer Cate Le Bon dampens the squelch of the now-ubiquitous Italosheep line, as sultry as she wanna be if only to trade winks with Rhys and smooth over the paradiddles of clean drum breaks between the otherwise silky warble that sits under the rest of the record like the force. Speaking of: “I Told Her on Alderaan,” carefully whisked from the Ric Ocasek precipice by another syrupy, talon’d Gruff chorus, is actually a lot more funny when you think about how the lyrics seem to imply that the protagonist was confessing to “her” on a planet that would—soon probably—get exploded by the Death Star. Phew! Even “Raquel” could spell disaster in the phoenix-like emergence of an Estefan or a Byrne, but every bongo hit and bell plink makes meticulous way for Rhys’s coyly harmonized vocals, as astoundingly gregarious as they are straight-laced and, may I say, gorgeous. The Welsh pop darling is on his game, refreshing after the lackluster SFA record and that faceless sophomore solo joint, and Boom Bip should reap the platitudes for replenishing such electrolytes. Together they make the fat sound lean, make the mean brighten up and the past (i.e. Fatlip) feel a bit more relevant than it should. Which is what they’ve been doing for a while, only Gruff’s never rhymed “Michael Douglas’s” with “mirrored sunglasses.” Which: suh-weet!
17 April 2008
Where we're going, we don't need roads. Remember with me, if you will, a time when cocaine was as rampant as synthesizers. When a wave of unprecedented M&A activity and yuppie-style prosperity was driving Wall Street to record heights. Sequels and superhero movies dominated at the box office, while starlets with limited discernible musical talent were releasing remarkably enduring pop songs. A conservative Republican was in the White House, giving aid and comfort to Iran as if he were someone who wasn't quite all there.
I'm talking, as you know if you're reading two words ahead, about 2006, when Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip first announced their collaboration under the name Neon Neon. Just as a yearning for the 60s characterized much of the indie pop and indie rock of the 1980s-- from R.E.M.'s jingle-jangle mourning to C86's "perfect pop" to the slowed-down garage-y guitar heroics of Dinosaur Jr.-- so the memory of the 1980s has dominated certain music circles in recent years. Whether electrohouse, new wave, new rave, synth-pop, Miami bass, Detroit techno, Chicago house, Italo disco, Balearic, or, most recently, the revival of what used to be called "world music", the 80s have left their mark on the YouTube era. Now if only the 49ers could win four Super Bowls again.
Rhys, solo artist and frontman for Welsh psych-poppers Super Furry Animals, and Boom Bip, the electronic/hip-hop producer known to his folks as Bryan Hollon, bring an eclectic background to the early-1980s revival. For an album conceived two years ago, Stainless Style captures a lot of what's been in the past few years' zeitgeist-- from Alan Braxe and Fred Falke's "Rubicon" to Chromeo and Cool Kids (if not quite all the way to Yeasayer); a recent Neon Neon "influences" mix included the Italian prog song that lays the foundation for Justice's "Phantom". And then the bright, 1980s-style guitar pop, murky electro rap, and cybernetic white-boy funk make for an album that upends some of the stereotypes about the hollowness of sleek 80s chrome. Hey, there's heart behind all this silvery excess.
The more melodic, Rhys-fronted tunes sped up on me first, and they're also the most chronologically displaced. Bizarre Princess Leia brush-off "I Told Her on Aderaan" puts the Cars beneath 1980s snare sounds, angelic synths, kitschy spoken-word interjections, and one of the catchiest choruses so far this year. The midtempo candidate for a weepy beach break-up music video, "Steel Your Girl", comes close, with chiming soft-rock guitars and phased keyboard. "Video games are nothing but illusion," Rhys begins. Factory farewell "Belfast" leans more toward wistful Duran Duran synth-pop. To all this, the herky-jerk call-and-response "Dream Girls" and shades-are-good electro creep-out "Michael Douglas" are wrecks by comparison.
Not that there's a clear divide between songs where Rhys seems dominant and ones where Boom Bip takes over. Raquel Welch ode "Raquel" and its Miami Sound Machine (and then Run-D.M.C.) beats comes closest to melding the SFA frontman's skewed pop vision and Hollon's electro-conscious hip-hop. On "I Lust U", meanwhile, Rhys duets with Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, trading one-liners on an Italo-tinged dream not too far from something like Simian Mobile Disco's "I Believe". Spank Rock and Sean Tillman get in a couple of snappy verses amid the Prince-ly groove and Midnite Vulture-isms of Har Mar Superstar on first single "Trick for Treat". A messed-up title pun and Rhys's fuzzed-out oddness sort of redeem Yo Majesty's heavy-breathing shtick on "Sweat Shop" (where's Missy Elliott?), but Fatlip's scene-setting rap on "Luxury Pool" is more biography than biopic, helped by a hiccuping, fame-pimping hook.
As a crossover side project involving an artist linked to 1990s Britpop, Neon Neon were bound to get compared to Gorillaz. Stainless Style is more consistent as an album than Damon Albarn's output with his first non-Blur group, and the potential hits, for what it's worth, hit equally hard. "Oh, how many are my foes?/ How many rise against me?" Rhys sings, with a choir of himself, on the title track and finale. Tuneful and engaging, though not flawless, Stainless Style holds a mirror up to a generation of 1980s nostalgia and, by warmly and humorously depicting a human being behind the bizarre rise and fall an engineer playboy, reminds us there's more to that most notoriously superficial decade than, well, surfaces. There's Huey Lewis, for example.
— Marc Hogan, March 14, 2008