Coeur de Pirate: Blonde

[15 January 2012]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Twenty-two-year-old Béatrice Martin, a Quebecoise singer-songwriter with an ear for contagious pop melody and a voice to match, returns with a sophomore record that radiates with jubilance and youthful verve. Her simply wonderful debut record of 2008 had hinted at what she could do, though it was mostly made up of spare piano-based tunes showcasing her breathy vocals and minimalist song construction. Despite its smallness, that album haunted me for months, and few Sunday mornings went by without someone in my house putting it on.

Perhaps this is why on the first spin through Blonde I was disappointed at how big it felt. I missed the sweet atmospherics of the first record, those classically-influenced piano numbers that first turned me on to her sound. But, by about halfway through my second spin, it had become obvious that Coeur de Pirate (which means Pirate Heart in English) had emerged as a true chanteuse of the old school, capable of crafting and executing a complete and unavoidable pop gem. Riding 1960s-era throwback arrangements for all they’re worth, Blonde is a record that is both comfortingly predictable and excitingly retro, a highly successful apeing of a bygone sound that feels just right in an era of Adele, Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Sharon Jones.

En francais, “blonde” is slang for girlfriend, and in many ways the titular concept provides the unifying theme of the record. Exploring the dynamics of love affairs from a range of angles – Martin recently ended a relationship with the frontman for Canadian popsters Bedouin Soundclash, and as a result their new band Armistice was shelved too – the 12 songs here explore courtship, romance, stagnancy and eventually breakup, but rarely stray into predictability or some kind of mawkish song-cycle with a “lesson-learned” or “you’ll get ‘em next time, kid”-type conclusion. Indeed, the record actually ends with a track called “La Petite Mort” (which translates as “the little death”), a timeworn metaphor for an orgasm. An ending, then, but also a beginning.

This is a mature and thoughtful collection of songs exploring the calamity that is love in appropriately messy and contradictory ways. Above all else, it is the music that will keep us coming back (especially those of us for whom French is an unknown language). Throughout the brief 32-minute run, Martin’s childlike energy guides the performances, and yet runs in direct contrast to her mature lyrics and songcraft. Blonde is, overall, a very fun, very amusing record. It has a jumping-around-singing-into-your-hairbrush kind of girlish abandon to it that is utterly compelling.

Yet, for all of this effervescence, a superior or more tightly constructed series of pop tracks hasn’t appeared this year, for my money. Though there is certainly an innovation gap here—these songs all feel like they might’ve been written 40 years ago by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (or something) and then rediscovered in a drawer somewhere—the dated quality of the material is given fresh life through some ingenious production from Ms. Pirate Heart herself in collaboration with the great Howard Bilerman (Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, the Dears).

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