Nouvelle Vague: S/T (Luaka Bop)

Nouvelle VaguePaul Anka doing a swing album of alternative rock songs turned out to be a bad idea, because the people involved didn’t treat those songs with respect and/or understanding. Get this disk instead. Nouvelle Vague is a French band with two clever producers at the helm and rotating eight breathy-voiced female singers (supposedly picked because they were unfamiliar with the original versions); they play a series of familiar punk and new wave classics in bossa nova style. Every song remains immediately recognizable (not true on Anka’s album) and most are sung (or at times recited) quite earnestly, with the drastic exception of the Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck,” which is giggled through with full awareness of its inherent sarcasm and as an expression of the protagonist’s inebriated condition.

Bossa nova in its time and place (Brazil, 1960s) was as radical as punk and new wave, musically and sometimes politically (though, let’s face it, new wave such as Modern English’s “I’ll Melt with You” isn’t overthrowing anything). Thus, “Guns of Brixton” is not diluted here. Sure, the raging guitars and Paul Simonon’s blustering voice are absent, but they are replaced with a different kind of tension, and the smoldering intensity of the song’s opening question – “When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head, or the trigger of your gun?” – is drained of all residual machismo and is purely the compelling sociopolitical choice the Clash intended.

This style is perfectly suited to the discontent of Joy Division’s “Love will Tear Us Apart,” the Specials’ “Friday Night and Saturday Morning,” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” with the exuberance of the latter echoed in the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” Public Image Ltd.’s “This Is Not a Love Song” takes on an extra layer of irony when it’s not John Lydon’s snarling singing, but rather a cooly detached female’s, and the question of whether or not it’s a love song is less obviously defined.

Yes, there’s a certain degree of humor involved in the switch of styles here, but this album is much more than a one-note joke. And that these songs work so well in a completely different context proves just how well-written they are – minus angry guitars and safety pins, or synthesizers and moussed hair, they still make their points magnificently. - Steve Holtje

Nouvelle Vague - Nouvelle Vague - Love Will Tear Us Apart

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.

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