There’s nothing particularly new about musicians tweaking convention by giving bizarro-world facelifts to iconic, genre-specific songs – Dread Zeppelin did it with reggae-tinged Zep remakes, Richard Cheese with lounged-up takes on aggression-laden punk-metal. But for the most part, such projects had breathtakingly short shelf lives that served mostly to prove man cannot live by irony alone.
France’s Nouvelle Vague has managed to maintain relevance – and even grow in stature – over the course of three well-received albums on which they’ve used bossa-nova punk as a base from which they’ve launched increasingly more venturesome forays into the world of genre-bending. At this performance, the second show on a rare full-scale American tour, the members put the smirks aside to concentrate on establishing genuine contact – the mark of a truly great bar band.
The most engaging portions of the show merged outright ridiculousness with unquestionable musical alacrity – notably a rockabilly take on the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk To Fuck” that found singers Melanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer ponying around the stage like hopped-up Jean Shrimptons. Likewise, a languid, Julie London-styled stroll through the murk of The Cramps’ “Human Fly” retained the sexually charged menace of the original, while making it seem perfectly reasonable wedding reception dance material.
There were certainly some duds: The band’s take on Depeche Mode’s “In a Manner of Speaking” didn’t add (or subtract) enough from Martin Gore’s tune to justify its inclusion, while the chopping and channeling of Lords of the New Church’s “Dance With Me” came across as simply window-dressing.
For the most part, however, Nouvelle Vague tapped into a zeitgeist the audience was entirely familiar with – knowing without being overbearing, heady without losing touch with the heart. In other words, a perfect bar band.
Nouvelle Vague plays the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.