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Review: Nouvelle Vague in Dubai – The Music Room has never sung louder

Nouvelle Vague at The Music Room in Dubai. Photo by Rochelle Cervantes
Nouvelle Vague at The Music Room in Dubai. Photo by Rochelle Cervantes

The UAE might be a country unhealthily partial to the guilty pleasures of a cover band – but there was no shame on display the night Nouvelle Vague came to town.

The French duo have never recorded a note of new music, instead making their name with the kooky conceit of rerecording 1980s post-punk and new wave classics in a Brazilian bossa nova style.

But while the gimmick might grate after repeated exposure on record, live it’s a well-oiled machine of slow-burning intent.

It confidently conquered the Dubai crowd on Friday night (March 11). After five seasons of gig-going, I’ve never seen The Music Room more rammed – or enthusiastic – more than 500 sweaty folk entranced into some kind of twee-bossa breakdown.

The easiest criticism to level at Nouvelle Vague is the word “lounge” – their music’s surprise success at selling a zillion products onscreen did plenty to inspire all those dreadful bossa/lounge pop covers you typically hear piped across hotel lobbies and lifts worldwide.

But onstage, there’s no way to level that charge. There’s quieter moments of fragility and chilled intensity, but this was never easy listening.

It’s when the sun-kissed grooves start to hum with an illicit, after-hours buzz, that the quixotic contradiction at the group’s core shines brightest: Depeche Mode’s Master and Servant sounded dangerous and seductive, The Clash’s Guns of Brixton had a bravado swagger a world from any Brazilian beach fantasy.

Sonically, the arrangements offer a masterclass in less-is-more; the core duo of Marc Collin (keys) and Olivier Libaux (guitar – always acoustic) are augmented by just bass and drums, but fill adequate space in genre work reliant on textures. Even when things thin out, no one’s listening too hard, thanks to theatrics of scene-stealing singers Liset Alea and Elodie Frégé, who prance the stage, thrashing with a trashy abandon and coquettish glint in their eyes. With no new music in six year, it’s these hired hands who are earning the rent today.

Things are dialled back down to just guitar and percussion for Teenage Kicks, prompting a fraternal “la la” breakdown, only topped by the smouldering dynamic build of set-closer Love Will Tear Us Apart, Joy Division’s anthem of discontent recast as a teary singalong. Electricity sparked: The Music Room crowd has never sung louder.

It’s well known that the witty wordplay in Nouvelle Vague’s clever name works on three levels: they play English new wave songs, in an exotic style once labelled the new wave in another language (bossa nova translates from Portuguese as “new trend”).

But in their native French, the name also namechecks the student-friendly film movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by Jean-Luc Godard, et al. The chin-stroking poise of black and white cinema may shine through the band’s records and iconography – but live, they reach out to a more visceral, breathing art form. Onstage, Nouvelle Vague are pure theatre.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: March 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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