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.

Nouvelle Vague’s Camille brings ‘The Guns Of Brixton’ to New York’s Chinatown

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.

Melanie at left, Phoebe at right, with Camille leading a chorus of girls from the audience in the middle.

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.

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3 Comment(s)

  1. 20 September, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    Didn’t catch this show, but did see them on the last tour at Joe’s Pub and there were certainly some similarities but they also seemed to have moved the show on a bit. There was no drummer last time, and no Phoebe. Ever Fallen in Love and Bizarre Love Triangle were played last time, but Bela Lugosi was not (wish I’d seen that). The “impromptu” bar dance with bottle of Jack happened last time as well, but to be fair it did work and crowd was lapping it up. I mean, how often do you get to see French women dancing on the bar getting drunk and singing about fucking?

    Same reaction last time to Friday Night, Saturday Morning… last time (such a shame!) and the biggest cheer (except maybe for Too Drunk To Fuck) was for Guns of Brixton which is far from being the most famous of the originals. It is perhaps their best adaptation, but the song itself just seems to have momentum of its own, divorced from whatever popularity the Clash have at any given time. It has certainly aged very well.

  2. 21 September, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    I have the same feelings about Camille, she can get very annoying on stage, but she still has the best range out of the three girls. And when she tones it down, her voice and performance work wonderfully. I’ve seen them twice at Joe’s Pub and i would think that a loungy type of venue is better suited than a “real” club. That said, i love seeing them perform.
    I believe that none of the girls on the album (8 of them including Camille and Melanie) had ever heard the original version of the songs they are singing. Fascinating.

  3. pierre

    10 November, 2005 at 3:15 am

    Just wanted to say that of course they’ve heard again and again original songs. Even if you’re allowed not to like the material on stage. That’s not because you’re french you don’t know all new wave standards. I don’t appreciate the whole album but some covers are very interesting in my opinion for what they bring new which is I guess the main aim of a good cover.


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