I don’t think I’m adding to my enormous hipster cred by admitting that I’m rather taken with much of the work of the French band (or “project”) Nouvelle Vague, which takes new wave classics from the 1980s and covers them in styles ranging from bossa nova (“Nouvelle Vague” is itself a multilinguistic pun on “bossa nova” and “new wave,” the three terms being rough equivalents in French, Portuguese, and English) to, on the new album, “‘unplugged’ reggae,” mostly sung by alluring French or Portuguese indie chanteuses. It all sounds horribly pretentious, but it actually works better than anyone has right to expect.
The first album, released in the U.S. last year, came to my attention when I heard it playing over the PA in a local bookstore. How can you go wrong with a French girl purring along to an acoustic arrangement of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”? Obviously you can’t. I wasn’t familiar with “Guns” at the time, in fact, though I recognized XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” a song or two later. The eponymously titled first album succeeds in part because the quality of the sources — the Clash, XTC, the Dead Kennedys, Joy Division, the Undertones — but it’s not all down to that. Even the covers of the Cure, Depeche Mode (Vince Clarke-era, at that), and the Sisters of Mercy sound surprisingly good. The take on “This Is Not a Love Song” is far and away better than the PiL original. I’d almost say the same thing about the cover of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” (even if it earns me a visit from the furious ghost of John Peel) and several of the other tracks, for that matter.
The new album, “Bande a Part,” covers more mainstream material and misses the mark several times. The world doesn’t need any more covers of U2 songs, no more than it needs any more originals. A reggae arrangement doesn’t bring out much that’s new in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” The more obscure selections on the new disc, meanwhile, tend to come from the more electro end of new wave: ESG, Heaven 17, Visage. When a relatively aggressive track like “Guns of Brixton” or “Too Drunk to F—” is translated into bossa nova, the result is often melodic and accessible without being twee. When songs that were originally radio friendly to begin with get the treatment, though, the result is perilously close to schmaltz. That said, the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love?” works, as do the two New Order covers on various formats of the album (“Confusion” and “Blue Monday” — to my surprise the latter is the better of the two, despite how overexposed the original is), and the interpretations of songs by two other one-time Factory Records acts, the Wake and A Certain Ratio, are also solid. The limited edition of the album has a very good take on the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” as well. And whether or not it’s any good, Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” done as a near showtune certainly is a revelation — between that and getting covered on Paul Anka’s last album, Mr. Idol may be in the midst of a revival he’ll soon want to forget.
A few sample songs from both albums are on-line here, including “Guns of Brixton.” Or if all this Gallicism makes you feel unpatriotic — the Washington, D.C. date of Nouvelle Vague’s North American tour is going to be at the French Embassy in September — you can always visit the Right Brothers website instead and listen to samples from their new album, including “That’s Why We’re Here,” “Freedom Is Not Free,” “Stand Up,” and the all-American classic “Bush Was Right.”