Diminishing returns are beginning to set in for Nouvelle Vague's French pop reinterpretations.
By its nature, novelty works best the fewer times it is experienced. Nouvelle Vague attempt to buck that rule with 3, its third album of post-punk and new wave covers filtered through a French pop sensibility. The new album boasts tracks originally performed by several post-punk/new wave heavy hitters, including Depeche Mode (“Master and Servant”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“All My Colours”), the Go-Go’s (“Our Lips Are Sealed”), Talking Heads (“Road to Nowhere”), and the Police (“So Lonely”). As in previous albums, the group expands its repertoire slightly to encompass the odd first wave punk and early alternative rock tunes, in this case the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun”, respectively.
In order to add some freshness to this latest endeavor, Nouvelle Vague (masterminded by French producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, and fronted by a bevy of honey-voiced chanteuses) incorporates more American styles into its approach (particularly blues and country). Those who are fond of the bossa nova and jazz stylings of the previous albums will still find several tracks that trade in those genres, however. More striking are the guest appearances by some of Collin and Libaux’s musical inspirations: Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, the Specials’ Terry Hall, and Barry Adamson of Magazine.
The previous Nouvelle Vague albums worked due to the juxtaposition between frequently gloomy lyrics and the rejiggered genre arrangements, as well as a song selection process that favored tracks with strong melodic hooks that can survive any stylistic take (Joy Division's “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” being two such previous triumphs). However, most of the likely suspects have already been tackled, leaving 3 with few obvious crowd-pleasers. The strongest hooks on this record belong to the always-singable “Our Lips Are Sealed” and the spiraling choruses of Simple Minds’ “The American” (thankfully shedding the heavy-handedness of the latter’s original incarnation). As a result of these song choices, on 3 Nouvelle Vague has to rely primarily on how its packages the material.
Unfortunately, some of these songs are not suited for radical reinterpretations. The album immediately errs by opening with “Master and Servant”, a song that in its original 1984 incarnation by Depeche Mode was a slamming, industrial-tinged dancefloor ode to the joys and contradictions of BDSM. That single is, in my opinion, the best-sounding production job of the 1980s. But on 3, one would think Nouvelle Vague confused it with Depeche Mode’s 1989 techno-blues hit “Personal Jesus”, giving it a kitschy, twangy feel that ends up making it sound more like the Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire”, of all things. Additionally, the backing vocals by Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore come off as gimmicky rather than essential to the song, more likely to elicit a few giggles at the archness of his involvement than to stand out as a key component. “Master and Servant” was always more about the production and arrangement than the melody, and as a result Nouvelle Vague’s rendition falls flat.
Aside from that egregious misstep, the covers on 3 are of relatively consistent quality, with a few highlights. Some covers are decent tries, if a bit dull and unrevelatory, such as “Road to Nowhere” and “God Save the Queen”. A few are quite fetching: “Blister in the Sun” features an upbeat take inspired by swinging ‘60s beat music, while “All My Colours” recalls the desolation of the original to moving effect (aided wonderfully by the second verse arrival of Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch). The album’s acoustic-driven take on “Heaven” certainly trumps the source material, although to be fair the original by the Psychedelic Furs was horribly marred by its dated production. The record’s best track is the closer “So Lonely”, which forsakes the Police’s aggrieved energy for a subdued melancholy. Amongst a sparse atmosphere of dripping water, tapping percussion, and muted bass guitar, singer Nadeah Miranda sounds completely, movingly alone.
The two questions that accompany projects like Nouvelle Vague are: "Are the covers any good?" and "Is this a worthwhile endeavor?" The answer to the first question is by and large yes, with a few caveats. However, at this point, the sustainability of Nouvelle Vague as a musical enterprise is in danger of running its course. The project made its point the first time around, and with the arrival of a third record, Nouvelle Vague’s approach has become as subversive and surprising as placing rabbit ears behind someone’s head in a class photo. More importantly, by devoting itself primarily to reformatting the songs into new genres, 3 often loses the soul of the original recordings -- be it the giddy anxiety of “Blister in the Sun” or the inflammatory anger of “God Save the Queen” -- without offering much in exchange. Throughout 3, the instrumentation is crisp and professional, the voices sing with perfect poise and inflection, and there is a healthy element of fun in the whole affair. And in some cases, that is anathema to what made the songs so powerful in the first place. Even “So Lonely” suffers; the fast-paced restlessness with which the Police performed it was the whole point of the song.
In a world accustomed to acts like Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies and Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine, cover artists need to do more than simply recast songs in an unfamiliar genre. 3 is a largely entertaining listen, just as past Nouvelle Vague albums have been, but a mix of diminishing quality and fading novelty value make it unclear how much longer this approach will continue to be artistically viable.