Nouvelle Vague

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Nouvelle Vague, I learned recently, is a French phrase meaning "new wave," not "new AND vague," as I originally guessed, or "vaguely new" as one of my friends guessed, or "new vagueness," as another surmised. (Considering my love for 80s new wave music, my interest in cinema, and that minor I earned in French, I should have known this long ago, but at least I no longer live in such profoundly blightened ignorance. And I don't know much about Portuguese, but I do know now that bossa nova is how you say "new wave" in Portuguese.)

I learned this because a few months ago, a friend introduced me to a French band called--that's right--Nouvelle Vague. They are, to my mind, one of the coolest cover bands ever to exist: they have a bevy of sultry female singers providing breathy, faintly accented vocals to lounge versions of American and British new wave and punk songs from the late 70s and early 80s. Not only do they cover the standards, like Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again," but they also take on less commonly heard goth numbers like "A Forest" by the Cure and "Marian" by the Sisters of Mercy.

I liked them so much I bought their album for Wayne, who claims to love French bands to begin with. I thought about buying it for my brother, who, in the late 80s, used to sing along with me to the likes of Music for the Masses as we went to concerts by Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Erasure and the Cure. But my brother has three little boys, ages 18 months to six years, and I somehow knew he would be ambivalent about owning an album that includes a hot-sounding French chick announcing over and over that she is "Too Drunk to Fuck" (as the Dead Kennedys originally proclaimed), no matter how cool the other songs on it are.

But I did play the Nouvelle Vague album for my brother, who wasn't as impressed as I thought he would be. "I find it hard to be interested in a band that only does covers," he said. "If a band wants my attention and my respect, they need to record some ORIGINAL music. After they've proven they can write and arrange their own music and lyrics, THEN I'll care about hearing them perform songs someone else wrote."

I sort of understand this attitude--I like originality myself--but I sort of don't. "Frank Sinatra never wrote a song in his life, and you love Frank," I said to my brother.

"OK," my brother said. "But he recorded songs I never heard anyone else sing. He recorded songs that were written specifically for him. And they're great songs, because he's a great performer with a great voice."

But the way I see it, great performers with great voices do great versions of great songs because they 1) are great performers and 2) have great voices and 3) have a good enough musical aesthetic that they can recognize a great song when they encounter it and 4) have enough inspiration and originality that even if they can't write a song of their own, they can sing a song someone else wrote and make it inspired, inspiring and original.

I love a good cover. One of my favorites is Elvis Costello's version of "My Funny Valentine"--that song just makes me MELT. I also really love Japan's cover of "Second That Emotion" and the English Beat's cover of "Tears of a Clown." Seven or eight years ago, Wayne gave me this soundtrack to some Australian movie I've never seen called Welcome to Woop Woop which I dig because it includes all these great pop artists doing show tunes: Poe does "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" and Cake does "Perhaps" and Reel Big Fish does this great ska version of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and there's also this really scary dance remix of "Climb Every Mountain" featuring the vocals laid down for the soundtrack of The Sound of Music.

Then of course there is Gary Jules' haunting (and increasingly ubiquitous) cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World," a song I listened to over and over on my mission because it pretty much summed up my life: during the last seven or eight months of my mission, I had horrific, gruesome, violent nightmares (a not-so-subtle hint from my subconscious that the experience was killing my soul and had already done plenty of damage to my body as well), and it was more sad than funny that dreams in which I was dying were the most common dreams I had. I still listen to and love the original and find it heartbreaking in so many ways, but the cover is deeply, deeply creepy and disturbing because it's so stripped down that you hear even more strongly the pathos and pain of the deeply creepy, disturbing lyrics.

Let me repeat: I LOVE A GOOD COVER. I love it when a performer or a band takes a song I already know and does something to make me appreciate in a new way. A good cover can be an homage to the person who wrote the song in the first place, and an homage to the people who first performed it. Or it can be an ironic commentary, as when Clem Snide covered "I am Beautiful," written by Linda Perry and recorded by Christina Aguliera. But whether it's intended as homage or irony, the song is larger than it used to be. It has more nuances, it has more power, it has an additional life.

Whereas a bad cover can grind away every last nuance, destroy every iota of power, can kill a song you once loved.

The way I see it, a good cover band becomes a good cover band because its members are good performers who can hear songs and recognize what makes them special to begin with, then can find enough inspiration and originality to make their renditions of the song inspired, inspiring and unique.

Whereas a lame band will do predictable, familiar versions of great songs because they can't do anything but play back what they've already heard--they lack the imagination to attempt anything but imitation. I HATE covers that strive to sound just like the original.

The covers on this album are exciting and fresh, clever and convincing. Nouvelle Vague is anything but vague; it is not mere novelty; it is a wave of reinvention! OK, it's not a brand new ocean slapping the edge of some new brand continent. But it will wash up onto the beach of your music collection a funky array of fascinating creatures, treasure long lost in the deep and intricately whorled shells, some of which contain the hypnotic sound of the ocean they sprang from, echoing mysteriously when you hold them to your ear.

2 Comments

I can't agree with your brother on covers, either. Nouvelle Vague strikes me as remarkably original. I think I know where he's coming from, though. If you go see lots of bands in clubs and bars, cover bands appeal because they play familiar stuff and bands that play original material, while often more brave, often don't convince. So covering is the easier route; you brother may just prefer and approve of the courage.

Still, I think you win this argument. I heard something in Nouvelle Vague's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that I had never heard in that song before.

Here's three hard to find covers that I totally love and are worth searching out. (1) The Au Pairs, from 1981, covering David Bowie's "Repitition." Even scarier that Bowie's. (2) Mark Ribot's cover of "The Wind Cried Mary." Even your brother would have to admit that it's a new song in his hands. (3) Okay, you'll never hear this I'm afraid, but I heard Beth Quist on a radio performance on Boulder's KGNU cover Led Zepplin's "Kashmir." I think she was playing a bowed instrument of some kind -- it sounded Middle Eastern -- and there was an accoustic guitar and hand drum backing her up. It was not just "unplugged" -- the dervishes would have been dancing into paradise to hear her sing it.

And, finally, not technically a cover, but why mess with good words? This Heat's version of "Independence," lyrics by Thomas Jefferson.

Hmm, I'll have to check out Nouvelle Vague. My favorite European band is Stereolab. I highly recommend their recent album "Margerine Eclipse." It's a densely layered, almost baroque electronic-flavored wonderland of songs that release endorphins when I listen to them; it's my fave album in years. There are also drums and guitars, and many of the lyrics are sung in French. Some of the songs have a retro 60s pop feel. (Yes, they spell "margerine" that way; not sure if it's a typo or what.)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 28, 2005 10:16 AM.

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