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The origin of French group Nouvelle Vague's name is three-pronged. First, of course, it references the famous French school of cinema. Then, the words translate to "nova onda" in Portuguese, which is what Brazilians first called bossa nova. Finally, there's the translation into English: New Wave, the great postpunk musical movement of the '80s.
All of this is carefully considered and pretty literal. Nouvelle Vague the band takes some of the most hallowed songs in the punk and New Wave canon and retrofits them for a new generation — as bossa nova and other cool global sounds. The mix is swingingly with-it. After all, if folks dig bands such as Joy Division, Depeche Mode, the Clash, and the Cure, how could they not dig their songs reworked as elevated mood music?
Just ask Olivier Libaux, who we recently reached by phone in Salt Lake City during the band's current whirlwind tour. He and Marc Collin are the two core members of Nouvelle Vague. As Libaux remembers, what they did from the beginning went beyond simply choosing a hit to retrofit.
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"Marc Collin and I were quite big fans of punk and New Wave when we were teenagers, and we developed an early passion for the music," he recalls. "When we decided which songs to cover, we chose songs we thought we could so something interesting with — not to create a new song, but a separate reading of the song, a really different version of the song."
As anyone who's heard their rendition of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough," the Clash's "Guns of Brixton," or the Cure's "A Forest" will tell you, what they've done is indeed something to behold. Even the bands they've covered have thought so.
"As you know, we change the songs a lot, but the very important thing to know is that we are not doing this for fun," Libaux says. "We are very respectful to the songs and the artists. And the proof of that is that on our last recording, we have Martin Gore and Ian McCulloch appearing with us."
Yes, you read correctly. On NV's recently released album, 3, Gore, of Depeche Mode, and McCulloch, of Echo and the Bunnymen, appear. They join singer Melanie Pain, along with the rest of the band, on two very unique reworkings of their hits "Master and Servant" and "All My Colours," respectively. Also appearing is Magazine's Barry Adamson, who teams with chanteuse Nadeah Miranda on a version of his band's song "Parade." These collaborations are a terrific sign of the respect Nouvelle Vague is accorded and, as Libaux relates, almost something of a surprise.
"We aren't that important to them. We are a cover band," he says. "And it was a few years before we heard that people appreciated what we'd done to their songs."
Over time, what they had done changed slightly. Rather than stick to straight bossa nova, Nouvelle Vague had come to take a new slant on things.
"We started to move from bossa nova with our second album, and the reason for that was we felt that our point was quite well made with our first recording," Libaux says. "This time, we decided to bring in country and bluegrass. We're big fans of Johnny Cash and the American artists, especially of the late '60s, and we thought it was important to show that influence.
"The other reason," he continues, "was that if we were going to work with Gore and McCulloch and Adamson, we didn't think they'd be comfortable with a bossa nova version of their songs. The thing was to find a musical landscape where both we and they could be comfortable."
Like bossa nova, country and bluegrass and roots music is a backdrop to which many elements can be applied. But that doesn't mean that everything fits or that anyone can do it. After all, if Collin and Libaux weren't respectful of the songs they cover as well as the genre in which they chose to sound off, Nouvelle Vague wouldn't be on its third trip to the States.
And on 3, the two might have outdone themselves. In addition to the exquisite re-renderings of the aforementioned Depeche, Echo, and Magazine songs, Nouvelle Vague delivers some terrifically unique versions of Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" and Gary Numan's "Metal." There are also quite surprising takes on the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed."
But it's Nouvelle Vague's stripped bare version of the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven" that stands out among the stand-out collection. Sung by the Brazilian-born Karina Zeviani, who also occasionally chimes in with Thievery Corporation, the song has all of the components for which the group is best known. There's a beautiful woman (Zeviani used to model for Ford), with a novel perspective (David Byrne has given her his seal of approval), letting loose over the kind of aural memory people cherish.
And like the previous two LPs, 3 features an additional coterie of charming singers, including longtime collaborator Melanie Pain, who sings on three tracks. Pain usually tours with Nouvelle Vague, but she's pregnant, so she won't front the band at the Artime Theater this Tuesday. But fret not. Zeviani will be there, along with Helena Noguerra, and they'll more than make up for the absence.