The French Are Coming

Keren Ann and Nouvelle Vague open up New York ears to the chanteuse nation

And, though Nouvelle Vague is thematically entirely different from Keren Ann's raw, steady singer-songwriter tradition, as a package it occupies the same seductively aloof, woman-of-the-world territory, enhanced not least of all by the urban-girl images on its cover and website. Where Keren Ann plants her high-cheekboned profile among downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, a series of photos on the Nouvelle Vague website locates the album's singers contemplatively in inner-city Paris: Voluptuous Mélanie Pain in a lilac T-shirt crouches on a dirty white porch, looking down; Camille's ghosty black eyes stare out through the blue of a moonlit Paris night. The album's cover is a color photocopy showing a black-and-white etching of a slit-eyed, wavy-haired seductress whose long neck stretches upward in a come-hither-if-you-dare posture.

"Most of the singers aren't very famous but all are steeped in the underground culture of Paris," says Collins who, along with his partner Olivier Libaux, handpicked the singers as much for their reputed vocal talent as for their youthful removal from the cultural and political significance of these punky songs of the Clash, P.i.L, the Dead Kennedys, XTC—the hard-edged sounds that occupied New York City's and London's influential undergrounds of the '70s and '80s.

And even beyond the thoroughly easy allure of the girl-face images, the album itself beguiles. The production is spotless in a my-pants-sit-perfectly-on-my-hips because-of-the-simple-fact-that-I-am-French way. The twentysomething singers of Nouvelle Vague turn lines like "hope the chip shop isn't closed 'cause their pies are really nice" (from the track "Friday Night, Saturday Morning," originally by the Specials) into misty, squealy, sharp-chinned poetry. Collins even manages to incorporate the potentially tinny, crass sounds of seagulls, waves crashing, and burbling crowds into a whispering, percussive whole. The album's sound was intended to provoke a general image of a girl on a beach with a guitar—Collins says the simple image of Mélanie Pain singing P.i.L's "(This Is Not A) Love Song" was his initial inspiration. But the project is better imagined as something created in an all-girls boarding house (or small-offenders jailhouse, if you like) on the streets of 1930s Paris.

The chantoozies and Svengalis of Nouvelle Vague.
photo: V2 Records
The chantoozies and Svengalis of Nouvelle Vague.

And, with the album's impish, brooding head shots evoking black berets, hard red lips, and finger-length cigarettes, it's evident that 1930s Paris is where this imminent vogue derives its sauce. Camille, Keren Ann, and their loudly pensive posses are reviving the influence of a potent line of French personalities—Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Catherine Deneuve—and have wooed U.S. audiences with a seemingly magic formula, equal parts The Second Sex and Amélie. In 1965 (yet another wartime parallel?), New Yorkers couldn't pass a deli without the sweet, unparalleled licks of Hardy's "All Over the World" floating out around them: "All over the world, others are sad tonight." Now, there's nothing so complicated in the mussy charm of a woman gasping as she sings with a French accent, "I drank 16 beers, started up a fight . . . I'm rolling down the stairs, too drunk to fuck."

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