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Artist: Nouvelle Vague

Album: Nouvelle Vague

Label: Peacefrog

Review date: Nov. 29, 2004

Between Firewater’s Songs We Should Have Written, the Twilight Singers’ She Loves You, the Soft Pink Truth’s Do You Want New Wave…, Richard Thompson’s Cohenian stab at “Oops… I Did It Again,” and all the forgotten curios unearthed by WFMU’s MP3 archive “On the Download,” 2004 was an outstanding year for wacky cover tunes. Here’s hoping that, before it’s over, Nouvelle Vague (Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux) and their loungey recontextualizations of assorted early-’80s punk and new wave fare get a wider hearing.

At the very least, this delightfully subtle disc provides another fine reason to protest the mutation of copyright law – legal snafus have held back its proper domestic release, which, at this point, might not happen at all.

The name means “new wave” in French and “bossa nova” in Portuguese. You wouldn’t need to know that to figure out NV’s MO; the cover probably clued you in on its lone. And you’d be forgiven for harboring some cynicism, after enduring the giggly trifles that were Moog Cookbook and Grunge Lite. In the early ’90s, when raw nerves and street cred underwent a brief popular renaissance, recasting antsy protest anthems as airy cocktail soundtracks or geeky goof-offs held enough novelty, just as an idea, to warrant NPR segments. But the stuff wasn’t built to last. On paper, Nouvelle Vague could be mistaken for more of the same.

And yet, the actual music here is too smart, sexy and tender to ignore. The rotating cast of vocalists (all extraordinarily hot young women who were unfamiliar with the originals) is as consistently and provocatively droll as the best of cerebral French pop. When NV rereads Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it’s rescued from its icy production and Ian Curtis’ flat affect, and it comes off a damn sight more conflicted and complex. Their “Too Drunk to Fuck” cuts through the Dead Kennedys’ whiskey-dicked frustration and exposes the psychological lust that survives beneath a flood of booze but can’t surface. The Specials’ barfly chronicle “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” always had a certain hollow pathos, but now it finally sounds sad. And the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” is a lot scarier stripped down. “I Melt With You” and “Making Plans for Nigel” are more directly true to the bossa nova formula, and thus are less memorable, if no less elegant.

The most interesting thing about these versions is that they reveal how artful and melodic a lot of these songs always were, beneath the snide spite. Nouvelle Vague improves musical literacy coming and going.

By Emerson Dameron

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