While brushing someone in a vulnerable spot produces a pain that a punch can't evoke, the slightest human touch can also register an enduring thrill. This is the lesson and draw card of Julie Doiron's music. Her sparing, softly embellished songs of unassuming, candid emotion are so economical and intimate that they provoke surprising personal responses. They have the capacity to pry loose deep-set, private feelings that you rarely surrender.
It's the signature simplicity of this French-Canadian artist that catches you off guard; the plainness of her setup (a guitar and voice template) compels. She's not like other songsmiths who have robust personalities with which to prop up their meandering strums and warbles. Her wallflowerish persona resonates because it's not dressed up as a woe-is-me selling point; it is what it is. Her direct, unembellished transmission of emotion is subtly gripping precisely because it swerves away from the obvious tricks of button-pushing. Doiron never inflates her subjects with melodrama, and while her frank, understated music-making mode is sparing, it's never raw. A natural warmth underlies the self-doubt and loneliness.
Heart and Crime, Doiron's fourth album, illuminates all this and more. The bookend to last year's French release, Desormais, Heart and Crime is enduring and quietly beguiles. What distinguishes this album is the range of intricate sounds Doiron has subtly fashioned into each song's sparse structure. Under the beautifully doleful strums of "I Broke His Heart" is the chatter of sea birds and the chug of a passing boat; a warm meandering trumpet lends "Shivers and Crickets" a plangent, soulful flourish; the lifted breath of the shifty loop on "It's Okay to Stare" is rounded out by downhearted piano notes and subdued organ murmurs.
Given that Heart and Crime came out a mere six months after the full-length Desormais, it's not surprising that this new album features some tunes that have been around the traps, so to speak. Original takes of "The One You Love" and "All Their Broken Hearts" can be found on the Shanti Project Collection 2; "Too Much" and "Who Will Be the One?" are from a 7-inch single that came out in 2000; and "I Broke His Heart" is the English version of the Desormais track "Tu Es Malades" (which actually translates as "You Are Sick").
Recycling is forgivable if done with invention and heart, and so the new versions have a potency of their own. While "I Broke His Heart" is now only several lines long, the intimacy registered by the riveting rise and warm hold of Doiron's voice (it's strange that she lifts her voice so rarely, because it's a stunning, fragile moment), combined with the incidental background island noises, completes the song utterly. The energized, racing-by version of "Who Will Be the One" on the 7-inch single (accompanied by her then backing band, the Wooden Stars) has been stepped down here; it's replaced with an emphasis on Doiron's exposed, treble-cradling vocals, which play over the contemplative, soft jangle of guitars.
"The One You Love" is mostly unchanged (bar an impromptu laugh that emerges after she intones, "It's over"), but it was hard to fault originally. It's during this song that she sings, "Who needs a heart like mine?/ Not you/ Who needs a body like mine?/ Not you." In other circumstances, those lines could sound like pitiful-me teenage poetry; Doiron however, contextualizes her lyrics with a plain-hearted directness showing how feeling downcast is a natural fact it passes, and it doesn't, and when it happens it's incisive and grueling. She doesn't play it up, or glamorize it or try to commodify it. Likewise, on "Sending the Photographs," it's the animated way in which she declares her affection for a lover that saves the sentiment from cliché status.
And that's Doiron's strength: her forensic approach to everyday feelings, particularly through her considered, quiet communication of anguish and bliss, engages the heart.