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Culture Reviews
Nouvelle Vague
By Ian Kysel
“New wave was our first culture, our first influence,” Marc Collin, the co-founder of Nouvelle Vague, told me on Saturday, while he casually picked away at his dinner. “Everyone is taking the 80’s – with the same sound,” he said, lamenting the character of the recent return to the culture and music of the 80s, “we are more interested in taking a new perspective.” Playing to a large crowd Saturday night at Keks, the group showed that this passion for the new was not enough to make new fans take the voyage back through time.

When I sat down with Marc before the show to discuss Nouvelle Vague, I was interested in finding out why he started the group in the first place, and how it would develop in the future. What I got was an inspirational description of his project. “It started with a dream,” he said, recounting his original fantasy of a bossa nova singer on the beach in Rio, singing his favorite new wave classics. He and Olivier Libaux worked from a mutual love of new wave and bossa nova, and a desire to tread new ground. I asked Collin to comment on the need for new music. “For a while, it [the catalyst for musical innovation] was the equipment – the synthesizer, the wah-pedal. Now people might say that everything has been done – not true.” Citing Bjork, among others, he argued that the expansions of electronic and computerized techniques have greatly expanded what can be done with music in the studio. “Now there is a crisis of creativity,” said Collin, “we want to show people that one can do great punk/new wave songs – that musical genius existed in punk music.” Thus the two sought to reap innovative new pop from the edgy songs of the early 80s.

With their hearts set on a return to their youth, these two found a number of young female French vocalists (who weren’t familiar with the originals), and began to craft their re-interpretations. “We worked from memory,” said Collin. “We didn’t re-listen to clips [of the originals].” Viewing bossa nova as “the most beautiful music to accompany a melody,” Collin and Libaux set out to travel (with their young French female escorts). “[to produce our eponymous album] was to take a voyage through time and space. It is great to think of a song written in Manchester in ’79 – during the crisis – and sung in Rio.” The link between the two is not the violent rejection that characterized punk music, but the melancholy and sadness that underlie both genres. At one point citing Baudelaire, Collin attributed the group’s success with fans who aren’t familiar with their roots to the emotions that the songs convey: “If we’ve succeeded it’s because we have returned fans to the melancholic side of these songs.”

While Collin and Libaux may have begun the project, it was their two female vocalists who led the band in their live performance on Saturday. When Nouvelle Vague filed on stage amidst the recorded chirping of birds and crickets, I was prepared to go on a voyage to the beaches of Brazil. The show, however, was not so transportive. With Libaux on the acoustic guitar and Collin playing keyboards and synthesizers, the set began with one of the rhythmic and sparse chord progressions familiar to bossa nova. By the second song, however, the energy level began to rise, perhaps driven by the aggression – the key to punk’s return to the spirit of rock and roll – Collin had mentioned briefly in the interview. Doubtless more controllable with studio equipment, the energy of the music attained neither the relaxed melancholy bossa nova, nor the raging punk sadness that originally inspired the arrangements. By the time one of the vocalists began belting the chorus of the Dead Kennedy’s “Too drunk to f^ck,” I began wondering if the group had maybe put a little too much on its itinerary.

Dressed in white dresses and boots, the leading ladies – Marina Celeste and Loralei – sang, danced, harmonized and thanked the crowd between songs (in English and Russian), while the silent, demure men in black sat behind them. The two women’s voices were at either end of the musical spectrum over which the concert passed: Marina, with a softer and more timid voice, took the lead on the slower songs; Loralei’s more raspy, edge, and at times off key voice, pointed straight towards rock and roll. Though they did little to blend, the two women were magnets for the crowd’s attention. While committed fans sang along and praised the ladies between sets, their compatriots in the back of the club seemed more interested in conversing with their friends. The excited front women led the group through a set that included, among others, “I just can’t get enough,” “Guns off Brixton,” “(This is not) A love song,” “Friday night, Saturday morning,” and the encore bonus, Divo’s “Mongoloid.” They had some success: their most vocal fans even continued singing their last song after the finished their second encore. For me, however, Collin’s romantic self-description was turned on edge: the performance didn’t show where the band came from or where it was going, it was just confused.

At the end of their set Marina gave a final thanks to the crowd: “Merci, Thank you. Spacebo. That’s Marc, that’s Olivier.” While she and Loralei were the faces of the band, they remained nameless throughout the concert: I only found out through asking Marina after the concert. In fact, the lack of connection between Marina and Loralei, and Marc and Olivier, made me wonder whether they were really a band at all. The style of the two front women leading the band on stage seemed to rely more on an insinuation of an extended flirtation than their desire to produce anything musically innovative. Without ever coming together as a band, the group’s musical performance ranged from garage rock to wedding cover band; melancholy, maybe, but without much Rio. While their new album (due out in September) will doubtless offer a much more controlled, produced sound, their live show failed to show the melodic ‘genius’ of the post punk/new wave era. Though at times the audience benefited from the melodic delivery of a guitar or keyboard lick, or a pleasing harmony, their show quickly became a spectacle. In this way, however, it was great fun.

Keks itself is an ironic club/lounge. Decorated as an homage piece to 1950s Americana, it is plastered with black and white pictures of housewives and sweater-vested Wasps. With a ‘70s-era Shaft film playing in the balcony upstairs, and specially-dressed women distributing free martini-and-juice cocktails, and Kent cigarette paraphernalia (are you ready to be social and meet people tonight? Take a white bracelet!), Keks was a fantasy destination of its own. Rather than a beach in Rio, then, I laughed and danced to the Nouvelle Vague. When I spoke to Collin before the show, I asked him to define pop music. “Pop?” he said, “at its base there is someone who writes a song, who wants to share it with others… it is someone who wants to share an idea or emotion with others… in three minutes.” He went on to trace its lineage through the middle ages. Though their concept is certainly a novelty, Collin and Libaux are hardly tambourine-wielding bards. Certainly then, from their overwhelming desire to share the music of their youth with others – refracted through the prism of their imagination – the band put on a fantastic show. Or, rather, the show was an attempt to share their fantasy. For 300 Rbs, some die-hard fans might have made it all the way to Rio; I never left Keks.

22.02.05
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