Historically, pop artists — even rock & roll bands — weren’t always expected to write their own songs. The Beatles’ early catalog is clogged with covers — and yet, sometime during the Fabs’ reign, when rock & roll was poised to become rock, and “authenticity” carried increasing weight, all that changed. Even now, rock & roll is hung up on who wrote what. For rock & roll covers to be noticed, they have to pick apart and reassemble songs — e.g., Johnny Cash singing Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” or Will Oldham’s all-covers collaboration with Tortoise last year, which deflated, even mocked, songs like Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and Elton John’s “Daniel.” The gimmick, it seems, is what sells.
Nouvelle Vague, masterminded by French producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, certainly have a gimmick. Bande à Part is their second record of ’80s tunes performed in a fluffy style that takes bossa nova as a jumping-off point. The song selection is an assortment of radio hits (“Heart of Glass”), new-wave chestnuts (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead”) and more obscure punk and new pop (“O Pamela” by the Wake, “Let Me Go” by Heaven 17).
A Starbucks-rack curio, you ask? Not always. Though Bande à Part caters to 30-somethings who’ve given up on new music and are content to hear favorites with a cocktail-nation twist, it has its moments. The best bits remind us that songs once existed independent of the personalities who made them famous — and still can, if they’re good enough. Indeed, Nouvelle Vague’s coverage serves as a songwriting litmus test: Hearing Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” reinvented as bouncy swing with a show-biz vocal does it no harm. Same goes for Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon” — weightier, to be sure, but sounding like a standard as singer Melanie lays the melody bare over plucked guitar and vibraphone. And then there’s the syrupy new-age drip of U2’s “Pride” and a lounge take on Yaz’ “Don’t Go” that’s forgotten before it’s over. These trifles are simply a matter of: “Remember that song? Here it is again, but like this.”
If Bande à Part is a wry party soundtrack, Melody Mountain is a grim distillation designed for late nights and solitude. The Norwegian electronic duo Susanna & the Magical Orchestra debuted with List of Lights and Buoys in 2004. That record contained mostly originals, but no one talked about those: It was Susanna Wallumrød’s take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Who Am I” that resonated. So on the follow-up, they’ve ditched the songwriting altogether to experiment with covers.
Susanna’s voice bears a strong resemblance to Björk’s, and her approach is pure chanteuse; Morten Qvenild’s arrangements are stark in the extreme, often nothing more than a pinch of organ or a creaking piano. It’s hard to know how to take the AC/DC raveup “It’s a Long Way to the Top” or Kiss’ leering “Crazy, Crazy Nights” in this context, slowed to a crawl with undertaker ambiance.
While there’s obvious pleasure hearing the Bon Scott poetry “Gettin’ robbed/Gettin’ stoned/Gettin’ beat up/Broken boned” at half-speed, voiced with a slight accent over a rasping autoharp, there’s something deeper at work. Like Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and the Red House Painters — who have also covered AC/DC — these two are determined to find the sadness inside the most banal lyric. So Bon Scott’s top seems unreachable, and Paul Stanley’s crazy nights are a transparent and futile attempt to ward off death.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” get by on Susanna’s resonant voice and willingness to let the melodies breathe; “Condition of the Heart” finds the understated ballad at the heart of Prince’s heavily orchestrated original. So the album is a novelty, yes, but there’s artistry at its core. Hearing Melody Mountain, you think less of where the songs came from and more about how they sound, right here, at this moment. Cover artists — especially Nouvelle Vague — should take a page from Susanna’s book: Don’t lean too heavily on your audience’s memory. That particular hook gets dull pretty quick.
SUSANNA AND THE MAGICAL ORCHESTRA | Melody Mountain | Rune Grammofon
NOUVELLE VAGUE | Bande à Part | Luaka Bop
Nouvelle Vague performs Fri., Sept. 8, at the Henry Fonda Theater.