Thursday, November 26, 2009

Review: Nouvelle Vague - 3

Originally posted on

"Nouvelle vague" translates to "new wave" in English and "bossa nova" in Portuguese. It's also the name given to the group of young filmmakers who popped up in France in the early 60s, including Truffaut and Godard. The band Nouvelle Vague plays with all of these meanings, doing bossa nova covers of New Wave songs in the spirit of 1960s France.

The group is made up of producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, who work with a revolving cast of young female singers. The idea is that the singers aren't familiar with the original songs, and so give a completely original and naive interpretation. 3 is their third album, following their 2004 self-titled debut, and 2006's Bande A Parte. Both of those albums kept pretty strictly to the formula of bossa nova New Wave, offering mellow versions of songs by artists like the Clash, Joy Division, and the Undertones. They've expanded their palette with their latest release.

It starts off with a twangy, country take on Depeche Mode's ode to bondage, "Master and Servant." They also give a light country shine to the Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere," and reimagine Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi" as a ska song. "Blister In the Sun" appears as a groovy jazzy jam, and Brazilian singer Eloisa's lack of command of English adds to the charm.

The second half of the album is more in the template of earlier Nouvelle Vague albums: bossa nova riffs on "Heaven," a torch song take on "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," the quiet acoustic guitar of "Our Lips Are Sealed." I enjoyed songs that kept to the Nouvelle Vague formula more than their experiments in country and ska, although I appreciate that they are coloring outside their self-imposed boundaries.

While knowing the originals is part of the thrill, it's not essential to appreciating Nouvelle Vague. I wasn't familiar with Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," but I loved Sophie Della's sultry interpretation. Likewise, I'm not a fan of Simple Minds' "The American," but I did enjoy the acoustic version with Silja. It strips out the cheesy 80s production and melodramatic bombast of the original, and replaces it with something prettier and more palatable. The Psychedelic Furs "Heaven" also benefits from being stripped down, and I prefer Nouvelle Vague's adaptation to the Furs'.

I was only shocked once, by "God Save the Queen." Here's a song that caused a sensation in the U.K. 30 years ago, and got Johnny Rotten beat up in the process, and now it's being sung by a whispy female singer over a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. It's both beautiful and a little creepy to hear her intone "no future for me." The highlight of the disc is Nadeah Miranda's run through of the Police's "So Lonely." It captures the loneliness and isolation of the Police's song, while managing to improve upon it.

The original male singers show up on several tracks. Martin Gore contributes backing vocals to "Master and Servant," Terry Hall sings on "Our Lips Are Sealed," Ian McCulloch appears on "All My Colours," and Barry Adamson lends a Hetfield-esque growl to "Parade." I liked Terry Hall's contribution, but the rest did more to detract than add to the songs. It sort of defeats the purpose of Nouvelle Vague to have the original singers participate.

From a critical perspective, Nouvelle Vague are a gimmick, and one that's threatening to run its course. From a listener's perspective, it's a brilliant gimmick, and a lot of fun. From my perspective, it combines three things I absolutely love: new wave music, acoustic covers, and French female singers. I'm not sure how much more mileage the band can get out of their schtick, but I'm enjoying 3 too much to care.

(speaking of Nouvelle Vague, here's the traffic scene from Godard's new wave freakout, "Weekend," about a yuppie couple on a killing spree.)

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