Monday, August 14, 2006

Nouvelle Vague / Bande a Part / Rating: 5.9

“For a project built on contradictions, it's only fitting that Nouvelle Vague's most lasting work stems from its most forgotten inspirations.”

My French vocabulary has been shrinking since high school but on a recent Jean-Luc Godard movie binge via Netflix I learned several things. 1) Bande à part (also the title of the record in question) is a Godard film and is also considered one of his most accessible films. 2) Bande à part translated into English means a band of outsiders 3.) Le Nouvelle Vague (also the artist in question) is the name of French film movement Godard was a founding member of and when translated means The New Wave. 4) I don’t care much for Godard films; no matter how much he has influenced modern cinema. ( Tarantino, Scorsese, Hartley, and Jarmusch to name a few)

I have spent my adult years obsessing on music not film so I had to do a bit of research to follow up on just how the band Nouvelle Vague related to the film movement. It also seemed like naming themselves after a particular film seemed like an obvious place to explore as well. Finally because I typically have zero interest in cover bands, part of me is fascinated by those artists who are drawn into the challenge of trying on another artist’s song size. The answers to these questions quite accidentally created the review of this record at the same and also covers territory that Pitchfork neglected to cover.

Your fun fact number one: Bossa Nova (a form of music NV relied heavily on for their first release) roughly also translates into new wave. New wave is a word play repeat offender here and seemingly is both the band’s main focus and purpose.

“Godard’s genius was to manipulate the tried-and-true tools of moviemaking into a fresh syntax.” and “It’s unlikely a Godard film will ever lead you to heartbreak or tears, but it will invigorate your love of movies.”

Nouvelle Vague take familiar songs and reshape them into something new and never heard before but like much like Godard’s films, the idea often outweighs the final product. Like any experiment there are also bound to be successes and failures. I could have happily lived without hearing any Billy Idol or U2 covers in my lifetime and while I don’t regret these versions exist, I (gulp) would still rather hear the originals. I thought I would be saying this about the entire cd but their renditions of "The Killing Moon", "Ever Fallen in Love", and "Human Fly" are all clever and surprisingly sophisticated.

A review of the movie on revealed even more parallels between the movie and band.

“Band of Outsiders is one such reinvention, a playful reworking of narrative form.”… At the same time, the movie offers a highbrow gloss on its lowbrow origins”… “With such loving images, Band of Outsiders shows that Godard's ostensible "destructiveness" is, more emphatically, a gift of creation. Its fragmentation and experimentation maintain a kind of wholeness, not by conventional linearity and causality, but by an emotional thread. In other words, Godard has made a new cinema out of pieces of the old.”

The above quotes in relation to the film sum up the idea of this record eloquently and exactly. The problem is and I repeat: this kind of deconstructive behavior does not guarantee a film or song to be greater than the concept itself.

The below quote about the theme of the record comes from founding member Marc Collin and is taken from their band bio.

“I then had the idea to set these songs in a very different dimension, namely the Caribbean between 1940 and 1970. Just as on the first album I'd imagined a young Brazilian girl singing "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on a Rio beach in the '60s, this time I envisaged a young Jamaican with his acoustic guitar singing "Heart of Glass" in his Kingston township suburb.”

This kind of cute idea worked well enough in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Brazilian Seu Jorge taking on Bowie with just an acoustic guitar) but 14 new wave tracks whipped into fluffy reggae-lite audio meringue leaves the listener hoping for something less cotton candy and a little more rock candy AKA solid. This island vibe often gets washed away and left behind are plain old lounge versions of songs that I am certain any half way decent composer/arranger could toss together in a few days for a television commercial using any girl with the capability of singing breathy baby talk.

Okay …so how did particular grouping of material come together no less with the Jamaican flavor?

“In certain cases I dug the production idea of the original title (like the voodoo sounds and horror movie organ on Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead"). Sometimes I started a biographical anecdote (I read that an early version of Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" was essayed in a Reggae style). Others, like the Buzzcocks' cover, were introduced to the set by (singers) Melanie and Camille during our 2004 tour.

I was also thinking about the loop which was being created during the period when most of this music first appeared - the influence of Jamaican music on English post punk (manifesting in the Clash and PiL most obviously, but also in the work of the Slits, Mark Stewart and so on...). It's interesting to note how successfully these titles adapt to reggae-based rearrangements."

All of this in print form is fine until you hear the chorus on their version of "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" which distractingly features a female vocalist repeating Bela La-Goosey’s Dead. The word goose-y for me in such a dark song turns it instantly into accidental comedy and something I am sure Nouvelle Vague was not aiming for.

Admittedly, no matter how interesting all these factoids are as footnotes to the music, it is still the music that should earn a high or low rating. Concepts aside, the music is very hit or miss and for Nouvelle Vague’s sophmore release, more miss than hit. The concrete foundation of a theme never hardens into something solid and sadly by the last track the floppy structures topples into a mess of island instrumentation and voices as delicate as a lazy tropical breeze. My rating isn’t too different from PFM’s but for what it is worth, I would have opted for a slightly higher 6.5.