Playing other people’s music is always a risky venture, to be sure. You’re playing music that is (usually) familiar but the comparison to the original composition is always there and can often be unfavorable. With French band Nouvelle Vague, they rearrange songs from punk, post-punk and new wave eras to often bossa nova pop to the point where only the lyrics remain recognizable. Not coincidentally, “Nouvelle Vague” translates from French to English as “new wave” and to Portuguese as “bossa nova”.
The arrangements are done by Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux and the band gets young, (mostly) French chanteuses with lovely voices to sing the harmonies. For their first, self-titled album, Collin and Libaux wanted to use exclusively singers that had not heard the original songs before to add a fresh perspective to their recordings. The band had just released its third album (appropriately titled 3) in the US last fall and is currently touring the states to promote it, including playing at the King Cat Theater in Seattle on February 4. They also recently released their own iPhone app.
What stands apart from this album to its two predecessors is that it features appearances by some artists responsible for the original song. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore sings a haunting duet with their most prominent singer, Melanie Pain, on “Master and Servant”, Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen also sings with Melanie on “All My Colours”, Magazine’s Barry Adamson appears on “Parade” and Terry Hall from Fun Boy Three sings on “Our Lips are Sealed”. Domestically, “Our Lips are Sealed” is mostly known as the first single by The Go-Gos in 1981, but Hall co-wrote the song with Go-Go Jane Wiedlin and Fun Boy Three recorded their own version the next year; both versions were hits in the US and UK respectively. The duets from “Master and Servant” and “Our Lips are Sealed” are particularly beautiful with their sparse arrangements and minimal instrumentation. Also, “All My Colours” wasn’t the first Echo & the Bunnymen song that NV has covered: an interpretation of “The Killing Moon” was on NV’s 2006 album Band a Parte.
Getting the artists responsible for the original composition does note an endorsement for what Nouvelle Vague is doing. I asked Collin about that during our telephone interview while he was still in France and he said “actually we had just asked and people had liked what we had done in the past with their songs, so we weren’t really starting from scratch and there wasn’t a lot of pressure.” The band’s bio lists Mick Jones (of The Clash), Morrissey and members of Dead Kennedys as giving their blessing to previous interpretations.
The one cover that I wasn’t sold on was The Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen”. Melanie Pain sings it and her voice is gorgeous, but there is something particularly jarring about trying to strip down a song to its core beauty and there is, by design, nothing beautiful to cling to – which I say as a Sex Pistols fan. The song opens with the verse “God save the queen, the fascist regime; they made you a moron, a potential h-bomb.” As lovely as Pain’s harmonies are, its inclusion still seems to be the proverbial equivalent of applying lipstick to a pig.
I asked Collin about that curious selection and he said, “I wasn’t a fan of The Sex Pistols, I’m not really a fan of early punk, mostly post-punk, but we are doing this third album and it is going to be our last of the new wave theme and it was important to have The Sex Pistols. I thought “what song from The Sex Pistols can we try?” and that was our choice. I tried to imagine an arrangement that was so minimal, with just a guitar and a girl singing. I thought it was working so we recorded it like that.”
“God Save the Queen” may have been included for the sake of posterity (and it’s really difficult to have an album of all covers where every number is an inspired choice), but for the others, they are more passionate about. Moreover, there is no irony in the selections of songs that Nouvelle Vague chooses to perform and record. Collin told me, “These are songs we were fans of when we were young, you know, and we were really passionate about new wave, so we would say ‘remember this band Magazine? They have an incredible song so let’s try it.’”
Mostly with , the 60s bossa nova sound is gone, with one exception: Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun”, which is the most upbeat song on the album and alternates with chanteuse Eloisa singing the verses in French and chorus in English. It’s very catchy and the time signatures are closest to its original form, just with a surf-pop vibe.
This is likely to be Nouvelle Vague’s final album with covering new wave-era hits; although he wasn’t sure what direction he would take the band in the future when I asked him about it. Right now, the band is touring the US and that seemed to be his focus. He was particularly excited about the tour (which was then “upcoming” when we spoke). With so many singers on the album, I asked how the touring lineup would be and he said they’re taking two singers on tour with them, telling me, “not completely new but not our main singer – she’s pregnant so she couldn’t come, so we found a new French singer who is really, really great. We also have a Brazilian girl, Karina (Zeviani) who sings on the album. It’ll be really classy and they are both really beautiful.”
Nouvelle Vague has been very successful to date, especially for a band who play covers of songs, selling somewhere around half a million records worldwide. Yet, it would be unfair to dismiss Nouvelle Vague as a “cover” band. They are hardly a band playing suburban bars on weekends to nostalgic boomers, nor are they a lounge pop joke, ala Richard Cheese. Instead they are offering rearrangements of known songs. It’s not Nouvelle Vague’s goal to “improve” upon such known songs but to stylishly reinterpret them. What I enjoy about listening to Nouvelle Vague is that they find a different beauty in something we already know and enjoy. That and it must count for something that I found myself using “gorgeous” and “Sex Pistols” in the same sentence.