A smouldering album wrapped in velvet strings and suave horns.
Martin Aston 2012
At the heart of this sublime record is a saga worthy of a soap opera. Boy inspired by Bob Dylan leaves Vermont for New York City, joins the anti-folk open-mic circuit just as The Strokes are breaking and reacts by forming a rock quartet fusing Strokes to Smiths. Promptly loses girlfriend (Regina Spektor) to Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, which inspires said band’s debut album Rotten Love. After second album Glorious, band splits and said (sad?) boy returns to basics, releasing solo albums (one named Blood Red Rose) via iTunes before recording demos of countrified duets with his pal Allison Pierce of then-little-known sister duo The Pierces. Said duo suddenly score hits (one a cover of Glorious’ title -track) produced by Allison’s pal/Pierces producer Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman, who gets wind of said demos and offers to produce a whole album. Voila, the 12-track Pray to Be Free.
Said boy James Levy (the capitalised LEVY was the name of his former band) has always had the deep-set dulcet croon for the job, but now has the right songs, setting and sound – and in Allison Pierce, the right sparring partner. Wrapped in velvet strings, suave horns and all-round lush deportation, Pray to Be Free adopts the Serge Gainsbourg’n’Brigitte Bardot/Jane Birkin and Lee Hazlewood’n’Nancy Sinatra/Ann-Margret models, by turns dark, playful, smouldering and joyful. Life’s all about death, relationships and the death of relationships, it seems; but hey, let’s have a laugh too.
Despite its clear 50s and 60s homage, Pray to Be Free’s spirit is never pastiche. Perhaps Pierce’s solo credit, Cry Myself to Sleep, most resembles a period piece, but who else is crossing Patsy Cline with Petula Clark? Levy’s songs mine a stylistic hotchpotch, some genre-specific (Painted Red’s country waltz) but Positively East Broadway, say, is mid-way between swagger and world-weary lament. If there is an overall mood, imagine a slightly sozzled, mischievous Leonard Cohen on the front porch having discovered the joys of country music.
The album’s sterling finale is Precious Age of 13 , half-sung in Hebrew (borrowed from Levy’s bar mitzvah) as a purposeful Gainsbourg homage (“but I couldn’t sing in French, so I sing in Hebrew instead!” he admits). Yet it serves as the album’s spiritual curtain-raiser, with the newly teenage James anticipating life as a man – lust, loneliness, pain, and repeat. Pray all you want, boy, but love will never set you free.