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Vocalist Karina Zeviani from Sao Paulo, Brazil channels Sting as she sings a contemplative cover of The Police’s “So Lonely” with Nouvelle Vague at Somerville Theatre last Sunday, January 24th.
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Nouvelle Vague

Supported by Clare and The Reasons

Somerville Theatre, Cambridge, MA

January 24, 2009

Sunday night at Somerville Theatre saw an eclectic pairing of the young Clare and the Reasons with the more experienced bossa-jukebox of Nouvelle Vague. In support of their second album Arrow, Clare Manchon, her co-collaborator husband Olivier Manchon and multi-instrumentalist Bob Hart opened the night with a set of mellow numbers. With Ms. Manchon’s voice the primary foundation for most songs, the backing “Reasons” shuffled between xylophones, violin, makeshift drumkits, keyboards, and even a bowed saw to fill in the gaps. Melodies, such as the chorus for “Ooh You Hurt Me So,” are easy to grasp, albeit due to its repetitive nature. While the songs were simplistic, Ms. Manchon’s lyrics are readily candid and conversational. She even sings a few songs in French, her husbands native language. The last three songs comprised what Ms. Manchon dubbed the “scientific portion of the spectacular,” a closing set which kicked off with the tongue-in-cheek “Pluto.” The song begins in French, addressing the late planet and its recent reconsideration-of-planethood as reported by the New York Times. The verse is then repeated, in English, fully clarifying the message of the song for the majority of the audience.

The most climatic parts of the set occurred when the instrumentation was most fitting: Mr. Manchon’s arrangements allowed Ms. Manchon’s vocals to sit comfortably alongside Hart’s clarinet and his own French horn. Stage banter linked every song together in a sometimes abrupt fashion, eliciting groans (after Mr. Manchon’s many party jokes) and gentle laughter (in response to snippets of life as a touring band). The set concluded with a hefty rendition of the Genesis staple “That’s All,” which kept the audience focused upon Mr. Manchon’s trained violin work. Ms. Manchon delivered one of her best vocal performances of the night on this set closer.

The French collective Nouvelle Vague, the night’s headliner, came on shortly after the opening set starting things off with a brooding version of The Police’s “So Lonely.” The brains behind the band, keyboardist Marc Collin and guitarist Olivier Libaux, were joined by vocalists Helena Noguerra and Karina Zeviani, bassist Oliver Smith, and drummer Spencer Cohen to perform a night of bossa nova-tinged covers of popular eighties and nineties punk songs. The band combed through its three records to select the most worthy tracks, paying equal tribute to every one of its releases. The haunting “Making Plans for Nigel,” an XTC cover, shifted the song’s original beat and revealed Zeviani and Noguerra’s textured vocals. The set’s dynamics moved nicely between lighter, softer songs, and fast-paced chansons that stayed true to their punk nature. The audience took a nice breather when Zeviani and Libaux performed the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” as a duet. Zeviani prodded the audience to join in for the final chorus: “No future / No future for you / No future for me.”

Nouvelle Vague survives almost completely on its fresh take on nostalgia. Voices could be heard scattered throughout the audience, echoing the familiar lyrics of such ‘old’ songs. The over-sexed interplay between the overtly feminine chanteuses contributed to this new perspective, especially on songs like “Too Drunk To Fuck” (from the Dead Kennedys catalog), “Melt With You” (a Modern English classic), and “Blister In The Sun” (the Violent Femmes’ most memorable anthem). “Blister” was one of many songs that breathed new life on stage, contrary to its more subdued recorded version on Nouvelle Vague’s latest release, 3. Noguerra prompted the audience to clap out the well-known drum fill that bookends each verse, a feature of the song curiously understated on the studio take. The group came out for two shorter encore sets, cadged by audience applause. Nouvelle Vague’s distinct musicianship and allegiance to the bossa nova style provided a formulaic yet entertaining show. While the traditional bossa beat pervaded every song, it had the transformative ability to achieve what few covers do well: to extract the key elements of a classic song, and show how those elements withstand deliberate genre mutation.

Nouvelle Vague will continue to tour throughout February, and will be joined by Clare and the Reasons for its upcoming Canada gigs.