Nouvelle Vague, the French band that conquered the world with bossa nova covers of punk and new wave classics, return in time for summer with their third album, NV3.
Led by producer/arrangers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux and sung by a revolving cast of chanteuses, the group's first two albums, Nouvelle Vague (2004) and Bande A Part (2006) have sold well over half-a-million copies. Not wishing to tinker with this winning formula, but evolving all the same, NV3 picks up where Bande A Part left off, and this time they're joined by some famous names.
On their debut, Nouvelle Vague took cherished tracks from the late 1970s and early 1980s by acts such as Joy Division, The Clash, The Cure, Depeche Mode and the Dead Kennedys and reworked them in a gentle bossa nova style. Sung by French female vocalists, some of whom had never heard the originals before, these cult hits had new life breathed into them, and their meanings became softly subverted. In French, Nouvelle Vague means "new wave", and "bossa nova" in Portuguese. Even the records' sleeves wittily referenced the artwork for Jean Luc Godard's early-'60s new-wave films.
"The original concept of Nouvelle Vague was to use young girl singers who don't know the meaning of punk and post-punk music," says Marc Collin, in whose Paris studio the records are made. "That way, they are bringing something new and totally fresh to the songs, and it really worked. So we kept doing it in this direction."
The group expanded its musical palette on Bande A Part, adding touches of reggae, ska and blues to balmy readings of familiar numbers by Bauhaus, Blondie, Buzzcocks, New Order and Yazoo, among others. By this point, even hardcore fans who'd considered these easy-listening versions of punk staples to be sacrilege learned to enjoy Nouvelle Vague as a guilty pleasure. But what of the authors who wrote the original songs - what did these once-ruthless idealists think of Nouvelle Vague's more fragrant approach?
Well, of those canvassed, all approved - thumbs up from Mick Jones of the Clash, Morrissey, the Undertones, Dead Kennedys and Killing Joke. And this led Olivier and Marc to the concept behind the third album: Nouvelle Vague performs duets with the original singers. The pair wrote a 'dream' list of the people they'd most like on the album and, when contacted, most said yes.
So on NV3 you'll encounter Depeche Mode's Martin Gore singing "Master and Servant" with Nouvelle Vague's leading lady Melanie Pain; Ian McCulloch of Echo And The Bunnymen duetting with Melanie on "All My Colours"; Marina Celeste performing "Our Lips Are Sealed" with Terry Hall of the Specials and Funboy Three (that's a Go-Go's track penned by Hall); and Magazine's "Parade" sung by Barry Adamson and NV's Nadeah Miranda. For additional tracks that didn't make the final album, Chris Bailey from legendary Aussie rockers The Saints performs a duet, likewise Samy Birnbach of noted Belgian new-wavers Minimal Compact.
Ian, Terry and Barry visited the studio in Paris to record. Martin sent his vocals from New York where Depeche Mode were making their latest album. "It was fantastic," says Olivier, "but it was also frustrating to work with someone like Ian McCulloch: when you hear him singing in the studio you want to record 15 songs with this guy, not just the one. All these guys are so cool - they're elegant, stylish, funny, they love music and they're passionate."
The other way NV3 differs from its predecessors is in the arrangements of the songs. Gone are the reggae and bossa nova interpretations. Instead, the songs are inspired by American country music and bluegrass. Nouvelle Vague transform Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere" into a dusty bar-room shuffle, its head bowed as it traipses into the sunset after a long day working the land. "Heaven" by Psychedlic Furs becomes a tender acoustic affair. A bluesy swagger through Gary Numan's "Metal" is sung with innocence and charm by Eloisia, a young Brazilian girl who could barely speak English and knew nothing of this music. Even "God Save The Queen", once full of menace and bile, is fashioned into a romantic flutter. Add enchanting covers of Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi", Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" and "So Lonely" by the Police, and you have Nouvelle Vague's strongest album to date.
To keep it fresh, Marc and Olivier approached this album in the same spirit of discovery with which they made their 2004 debut. Back then, says Olivier, they recorded four songs for fun and played them to friends, who loved them, and also loved the idea of turning new-wave songs into something different. And so they made an album.
"So many people loved this album that we recorded another one and also we played a lot of gigs and concerts and had lots of covers happening," he says. "Nowadays we just flow with the audience all the time because whenever we play a new song somewhere, we get so much feedback. And also as artists we love discovering new ways to cover this or that song."
As with all Nouvelle Vague's work, the real stars of the records and shows are the songs themselves. Says Olivier: "When it is a simple thing called a good song, you are always excited to record it in the studio and arrange it in a new way, and you are also excited to play it live in a simple way. The one important thing is that Nouvelle Vague are recording new versions and playing versions of absolutely fantastic songs."
When Nouvelle Vague play live, these well-known songs by other people become Nouvelle Vague's songs. They own them, you might say. In the last few years the group have taken to the road as a six-piece touring outfit, playing shows and festivals all over the world.
"I can tell you we have probably played "Love Will Tear Us Apart" more times than Joy Division ever played it live," says Olivier, "We have done hundreds of gigs and we are never, never fed up playing these songs. We are always discovering the song, it's fantastic."
Nouvelle Vague's remarkable success with other people's songs means many young fans assume Marc and Olivier write all the material. "We started the project for fun and it has come a long way from what we expected," says Marc. "We have a lot of young girls at shows in lots of countries who really don't know that the songs are covers, so we find ourselves in a weird position.
"I think we are a unique band in this way," he continues. "We are playing big festivals, touring a lot and doing press interviews as a covers band, but because we are doing covers most people don't know, a lot of people think we are a normal band. It's strange."
Stranger still, perhaps, is the experience of hearing one's music in a lift, or piped into a supermarket, a rare fate reserved for a handful of albums, two of which are by Air and Moby. But it happened to Olivier. "I remember being in New York and hearing our version of "Teenage Kicks" in an elevator," he says. "A few hours after that Melanie was buying some trousers in a shop and she could hear Nouvelle Vague again, her singing."
How did she feel?
"She was very happy."
That's Nouvelle Vague: they take the songs that you adore and make you fall in love with them all over again.
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