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The notion behind France's Nouvelle Vague -- '70s- and '80s-vintage new-wave songs as crooned by sexy femmes over acoustic, bossa-nova-inflected grooves -- could hardly seem more gimmicky. So the biggest surprise about the group isn't its success, which is at least partly due to the cleverness of the concept. Rather, it's the fact that Nouvelle Vague's best efforts often manage to transcend mere novelty.
For Marc Collin, who co-founded the project with partner Oliver Libaux, this point is underlined by "Don't Go," a rendering of the 1982 Yazoo ditty that's on Bande Apart, Nouvelle Vague's sophomore disc. The act's version of the long-ago synth-pop smash sports a sophisticated arrangement laden with synthetic strings, "and if you listen closely to it, you can see I really tried to do something beautiful," Collin says in an accent roughly twice as thick as Inspector Clouseau's. "I don't think you can laugh when you listen to 'Don't Go.' You can not like it, of course. But I don't think you can laugh."
The same can't be said of Nouvelle Vague offerings such as "Dancing With Myself," a silly Billy Idol cover that's also part of Bande, and "Too Drunk to Fuck," a self-conscious take on the Dead Kennedys salvo that appears on the group's self-titled 2004 debut album. Nevertheless, Collin insists that he and Libaux are motivated by affection for the era, and not its exploitability: "We're not being ironic -- because, really, the main idea behind Nouvelle Vague was to prove that those bands have written some very good songs."
Granted, some of Collin's favorites have resisted adaptation to the Nouvelle Vague format. "I really like the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but there's a huge difference in the songwriting between them," he maintains. "The Cure have written extraordinarily good pop songs. But Siouxsie and the Banshees? Not so much. What's good about them is the sound, the production, things like that."
In contrast, several largely forgotten combos have provided better raw material, including Tuxedomoon, a doomy San Francisco outfit whose tune "In a Manner of Speaking" has become a Nouvelle Vague audience favorite. At a Bay Area show, Tuxedomoon vocalist Winston Tong joined the outfit on stage, and when vocalist Melanie Pain introduced him, "absolutely nobody knew who he was," Collin recalls. "They probably thought he was a friend of ours or something."
This reaction tells Collin that Nouvelle Vague's appeal goes beyond pure nostalgia. "At the beginning, I think the people who bought the album knew all the songs and liked the project because of that," he says. "But now it seems we get a lot of younger people who only know a few of the songs but like the band and buy the CDs and go to the show just for us." Collin believes that few of these listeners go back to the originals after being introduced to them by Nouvelle Vague. "If you're not already into new-wave music, I think it would be hard to really appreciate it," he argues, "because what we do is very, very different."
Call it the triumph of the gimmick.