French Bossa Nova New Wave comes to Chinatown
Cabbing it along Canal Street last Wednesday, I saw, on a bus-stop video screen straight out of Blade Runner, a high-definition clip of an American actor playing an English footie “thug.” Just thirty minutes later, inside the Canal Room club in New York’s Chinatown, I watched a French girl sing ‘The Guns Of Brixton’ – in a bossa nova style, no less. What a weird, wired world this can be.
The movie clip was from Green Street Hooligans, which stars Elijah Wood as an American in London. The French girl was, of course, part of Nouvelle Vague, whose album of bossa-nova new wave covers was first discussed at iJamming! about a century ago and which is now buzzing in the States with ever-increasing volume.
Those who’ve heard the Nouvelle Vague album generally agree it’s one of those rare novelties that oozes quality. The live show proved more problematic, however, quickly leaping from kitsch to comedy. This was partly an inherent result of the project’s ingredients: how do you put a French bossa nova new wave covers band on stage in a trendy Manhattan club and make it sound anything other than fashionably fickle? But it was also a matter of programming: after vocalist Melanie offered a sincere opening rendition of The Cure’s ‘A Forest’ (Nouvelle Vague’s masterminds Marc Collin and Olivier Libeaux on keys, computer and guitars behind her, along with an unnamed drummer), she was joined by fellow French singers Camille and Phoebe for Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough.’ That’s one of my favorite pop songs of all time, but its singalong simplicity is never easy to take seriously, and with all three girls relentlessly hamming it up to the audience’s immediately hollered delight, it looked like we were destined for a night of cocktail lounge karaoke.
The nadir came early with a (non-album) rendition of our beloved Buzzcocks anthem ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)’, for which Camille emerged from offstage to seemingly upstage her partners. This was almost immediately followed by an acoustic rendition of New Order’s ubiquitous ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ so ludicrously similar to the 1994 hit version by Australian act Frente that you wondered at the point of the exercise.
At least the three singers offered distinctly individual personalities. Melanie played the buxom brunette, a la Kate Pierson or Ana Mantronic; Phoebe twisted and turned under her straggly hair like Janis Joplin flailing in the wind; and the gifted but annoying Camille came across with all the subtlety of clueless AbFab receptionist Bubbles.
Yet just as Camille ruined the show, so she saved it: such is the capacity of raw talent. She delivered ‘The Guns Of Brixton’ – a song that survives almost any translation, as Beats International and Cypress Hill can testify – with suitably subtle menace, before leading her singing partners across the Canal Room’s bar during a deliberately messy version of The Dead Kennedys’ ‘Too Drunk To Fuck,’ during which, by instinct or design, she appropriated a bottle of top shelf booze.
It was just the catalyst the show needed. Phoebe did more of her wicker woman impersonations as she took us through (a non-album) ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ and, so I was later told, a Gun Club song too; and though ‘Teenage Kicks’ failed the TransAtlantic instant audience recognition test, The Specials’ ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ proved just as quietly ominous onstage as it does on the Nouvelle Vague album, a final chorus being dragged out with a mundanity of which Terry Hall would be proud.
With the gentle tropical shuffle and acoustic guitar of the bossa nova groove percolating behind them at all times, there was always the hope that the girls would leave the lounge act behind and come on with the quiet assertiveness of a peer like Bebel Gilberto. This didn’t happen with the finale of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ another song that translates into any musical language, and yet which has been covered beyond all necessity. But when, for the first encore, Camille returned solo, she delivered Tuxedomoon’s ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ with enough emotive noir to temporarily convince me she was in fact Beth Gibbons and I was at a Portishead show. (It’s part of the Nouvelle Vague intrigue factor that Camille was completely unaware of all these songs before working with Collin and Libeaux.) She then invited girls – and only girls – up from the audience to provide a backing chorus for a second run-through of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough,’ this time slowed to a doo-wop blues crawl. The same song that an hour earlier had suggested a night of frivolity now came across with inventiveness and imagination that distinguishes the Nouvelle Vague album as so much more than a novelty. And we were left in no doubt that just as Camille can play the clown, so she can lead the chorus.
Our Step On friend Ray Velasquez DJ’d several sets of Brazilian tinged dance music throughout the night, including a scorching samba cover of Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life.’ He and his wife Vanessa also came up with many of the observations that have peppered this review. My thanks to them for their comments and hospitality.