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Listening to: Coeur de pirate

Béatrice Martin, who goes by the stage name Coeur de pirate, is a wildly, fantastically talented singer-songwriter from Montreal. She has just released her second solo album—the excellent Blonde—and she’s only 22. Like many listeners outside of France and Quebec, I first noticed Coeur de pirate as a guest duet vocalist on Bedouin Soundclash‘s lovely ‘Brutal Hearts’ from last year’s Light the Horizon. The song itself was definitely a departure from Soundclash’s usual indie-ska with its seductive and striking sing-song melody, and Martin sang her part accent-free and with an innocent country swagger that was both charming and a good blend with Soundclash lead singer Jay Malinowski‘s high tenor.

I didn’t investigate the mysteriously named Coeur de pirate any further at first, and when I finally did a couple of months ago, I briefly listened to her eponymous first solo effort. I might have been a little disappointed in it—it’s a straight-up French singer-songwriter record, very piano-based (the instrument she’s studied since childhood), and showing little of the indie crossover potential that could make some Quebec music interesting to the English-speaking world (including the rest of Canada). My French isn’t what it used to be, but I can work myself through the lyrics with the help of printed text. And even if I wasn’t too fired up about the music, it was clear that she was an astonishingly capable writer with a grasp of songcraft well beyond her years. The first record sold a surprising 400,000 copies worldwide, making her a household name throughout the French-speaking world. “In the rest of Canada I’m still seen as indie, which is nice, but where I’m from I’m not.” (Martin quoted in NOW).

Blonde was released a few days ago, and precisely, almost surgically fulfills the potential that Coeur de pirate hinted at for listeners outside the Francophone world. I won’t make any claims about understanding (or representing here) the history of how certain French pop has managed to cross over in the past 60 years, but of course it’s mostly been about what we’ve projected onto the French: Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Françoise Hardy, Édith Piaf, Carla Bruni, Manu Chao and—yes—Céline Dion all ring a bell for us because they embody what we think the French language and culture are. Much like Anglophone pop, our collective imagination of French popular music somehow culminates in the 60s, images of a busty Brigitte Bardot merging with Gainsbourg and Birkin’s 1969 scandalous single, ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus.’

And Coeur de pirate’s Blonde zeroes in on that sound—a fresh-faced take on 60s pop that sounds a bit like the Supremes, a bit like the Phil Spector girl groups, a little like Nancy Sinatra, with trace elements of the Bangles and Bananarama. “I really wanted Blonde to sound classic. To me, the ’60s are perfect—in change, in cinema, in culture. And I really like what they did in France as well when it comes to music. You could talk about very intense subjects with very light and happy music—but the lyrics aren’t so happy.” (Martin quoted in the Montreal Gazette).

The production is outstanding, with just the right subtle amount of strings and reverb, and with the slightest, faintest touch of analogue distortion meant to signal the limits of 60s equipment or the wearing-out of vinyl grooves. It’s classy and subtle and genuinely groovy without ever taking a turn into the clichéd. Blonde was produced and engineered by Howard Bilerman, who has serious indie credentials as a former member of Arcade Fire and producer and recording engineer to the who’s who of Montreal’s indie scene.

The lyrics? Like I said, I can pretty well follow using the lyric sheet, but I’m perhaps not entirely qualified to judge if they are any good. Knowing the importance of lyrics to the French, though, I think Blonde‘s meteoric climb up the French and Canadian iTunes charts this week probably speaks for itself. Broadly, the songs are about relationships between men and women, about the stories men tell women, and how women believe those stories (or not). About how we hurt each other and then make up. Martin’s words are those of an independent woman, intelligent and lyrical, classic songwriting skills that would translate anywhere. If you’re looking for specific tracks to try, musically the strongest are perhaps ‘Adieu,’ ‘Danse et danse’ (which has a fantastic shuffle sound that could, in fact, make you dance and dance), ‘Ava’ and the country-tinged ‘Loin d’ici,’ a duet with Sam Roberts. But it’s all great and deserves to be appreciated widely.

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Another interesting project Béatrice Martin is involved in is Armistice, an EP co-helmed by Jay Malinowski and Martin that came out in early 2011. Recorded and written in partnership with Mariachi El Bronx (apparently the mariachi alter ego of punk outfit The Bronx from LA, go figure), this is a collection of 5 widescreen tracks that seem like the logical extension of the previously mentioned ‘Brutal Hearts.’ All tracks are sung as duets by Martin and Malinowski (who are in a relationship), and are simply lovely.

The sound of this somehow evokes a Robert Rodriguez aesthetic from the Mexico Trilogy, or some of the soundtrack materials hinted at in the closing credits of Tarantino’s Kill Bill—music for a ‘fantasy western,’ from Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona, Nashville, and from nowhere at all. The video for ‘Mission Bells‘ (the first single) is seductive, evocative, funny and absurd all at the same time, with Martin and Malinowski happily walking through a dusty Arizona (Nevada? California?) desert landscape, then cavorting on rusty deck chairs in a deserted-looking coastal resort, all the while singing their hearts out. There is an obvious chemistry here that translates directly to the music, resulting in 5 unusual songs that are well worth having and lightly sprinkling into your hipster-chic playlists in the interest of some levity and an odd kind of 21st century authenticity.

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