To say that the’80s played an influence on L.A. duo Neon Neon is a grave understatement. If their use of the decade’s most prevalent color scheme as their name, doubled Duran Duran style, isn’t enough of an indication, the theme behind debut album Stainless Style most certainly should be. Apparently, the inspiration behind the dreamy electro fantasies throughout the album’s 12 tracks is none other than John DeLorean, designer of the car of the future and cocaine trafficker. One could hardly focus on an icon as defined by the decade as DeLorean, thereby making it seem only natural that the music itself mirrors the glossy new wave sounds of the golden MTV era.
At their South by Southwest performance, Neon Neon’s five-piece live band even looked the part, with Crockett and Tubbs blazers, Flock of Seagulls hair and keytars aplenty. All of them except frontman Gruff Rhys, who, while still snappily dressed, seemed like the ordinary man envisioning this Reagan era fantasy. It should be ridiculous, and it should seem like novelty, but that’s the interesting part. This bright, electric hallucination is an entirely euphoric one, as if the only memories left of the decade were Human League records and racy Duran Duran videos, rather than Chernobyl or Tiananmen Square.
For more than a 12 years, Rhys has been releasing brilliantly bizarre pop songs with The Super Furry Animals, and his fantastical songwriting style is like an endless well of quirky fables and superb melodies. His involvement with the project, alone, more or less ensures success. But the Welsh frontman has good company with new recording partner Boom Bip, who provides the electronic thrust to each glitter-flecked song. Together, the duo creates some of the best electronics-based pop music of the year, a feat that’s scarce among mere “side projects.”
When playing up the synth-driven pop factor, Neon Neon can’t fail. “Dream Cars,” the one song that could be easily connected to DeLorean, could similarly be connected to Gary Numan, whose “Cars” shares a similar rhythmic jerk. This track is brighter and more expansive, even, (ahem) dreamlike in its sweet tones and atmospheric synth sweeps. The Star Wars referencing “I Told Her On Alderaan” should be a megahit. Pairing Cars-like verses with a soaring, powerful chorus (sing along: “I told her on Alderaan/ that nothing else was going on“), the duo creates a sound that I challenge anyone not to love. “Raquel,” as in Welch, is a bouncy, cowbell banging dance treat, in which Rhys confesses “ you really got a power over me,” before asking her to ride in his car (perhaps singing from the perspective of DeLorean this time?). “Steel Your Girl” perfectly marries glorious vocal harmonies to Cure-like cascades of guitar, while “I Lust U” is somewhere between “Don’t You Want Me” and “Tribulations,” not a bad midpoint in which to exist.
Neon Neon also tries their hand at a few hip-hop style tracks, which, considering Boom Bip is a hip-hop artist, only makes sense. Juxtaposed against tracks like “I Told Her On Alderaan,” the Har Mar Superstar and Spank Rock collaboration “Trick For Treat” has potential of sounding awkward. Thankfully, Boom Bip’s meticulous production makes the transition smoother than expected. The first single on the album, it bounces along a dirty beat with raunchy rhymes interjected between awesome choral falsetto. “Sweat Shop,” which is a pretty clever title I have to say, finds Rhys and Yo Majesty trading verses with sexually charged vigor, and is a surprising highlight. Only “Luxury Pool” falters, primarily because it is the one song that seems out of place, though it would be a decent track outside of the album.
For all of Neon Neon’s unapologetic nods to the 1980s, musically and culturally, Stainless Style sounds more contemporary than nostalgic. Their ’80s is more romantic and idealized however, mired in dreams and fantasies, synths and effects pedals. I was alive for most of the decade, enough that I actually do remember some of it. It’s just that Stainless Style captures that perfect vision of how I actually want to remember it.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.