“I love you more than music / Let it come” (“Positively East Broadway”)
Timing, it’s said, is everything. A boy drops out of college to fulfill his singer-songwriter destiny, loses his way despite experiencing highs among the lows, considers jacking it all in, which as happenstance has it, leads to him starting all over again. At which point, with nothing to lose, he produces the best work of his life, makes the right connections and stands to finally reap all that he has sewn. Destiny has finally come for James Levy.
Released on Heavenly under the name James Levy And The Blood Red Rose, Pray To Be Free is a gorgeous, romantic and yet playful collection of jaunty pop and bruised ballads, imbued with stunning vocals and wrapped in a variety of velvet strings, suave horns and other colours of the night. “A great traditional rock ‘n’ roll singer songwriter record,” reckons Heavenly head honcho Jeff Barrett (and he should know, having worked with several of the best). In Levy’s case, his aim was the kind of classic Serge Gainsbourg recorded in the ‘60s with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, or Lee Hazlewood’s similarly charged duets with Nancy Sinatra and Ann Margret. James’ good pal Allison Pierce (of The Pierces) provides the female vocal riposte to James’s manly desire in these sumptuous duels of love and war. Or as James says, “I tend to write about death and relationships, and the death of relationships, but I cannot tell you why.”
He can tell you why he chose the album’s fifth track as the album title, because the words simply, “roll off the tongue” — a feeling and a rhythm that marries up to the music’s insouciant airs and graces. But he cannot tell you why Pray To Be Free has fantastic timing on its side – namely Allison and sister Catherine’s rise to fame as swingin’ sisters The Pierces, and the fact their summer hit was a cover of James’ song “Glorious”. Like The Pierces own breakthrough album (You & I), Pray To Be Free is produced by Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman.
And again like The Pierces, Berryman proved to be a bit of a saviour. He told the sisters not to give up music, which is exactly what Levy had also considered. Having recorded three albums only available through his website and a couple of online stores, he accepted that this was to be his modus operandi. So when he set about making some new demos and enlisted Allison’s help, he wasn’t anticipating Allison taking the demos to her pal Guy, who loved what he heard and offered to produce a proper album of James’ songs. Recorded at Electric Ladyland in New York and Guy’s home studio in London, 12 songs, old and new, 11 by James and Allison’s “Cry Myself To Sleep”, were selected to form a cohesive album and then all lent a pristine analogue sound that will never date because it’s so bloody lovely.
Guy’s role, James reports, was, “not to change things, just to make it sound better. We both knew what it was supposed to sound like. An old record, but also a new record. Something fun. Though a couple aren’t fun, like “Cryin’ To The River” and “Bums In Love”.”
Both are tear-soaked songs from James’ recent past, the original versions laid down on his 2008 album Yvel (Levy backwards…), as was the country waltz “Painted Red.” This was the first solo Levy album, which followed two albums by the band called, in bold capitals, LEVY (the name was the guitarist’s idea, admits a sheepish James, because they couldn’t come up with something better). The entire band episode of his life, circa 2004–2007, now says was also “misguided.” But, he adds, “Nobody wants to play alone, I’m not suited to it,” Levy once declared. “You can’t get girls playing alone. Not even Bob Dylan wanted to play alone.”
So a band was born, despite the fact that Levy had left his native Vermont in the early Naughties for New York City to fulfil his destiny, his head mostly full of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (having survived the grunge and punk phases of his youth). He began his new chapter by playing open mike sessions at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village, got erroneously lumped in with the anti-folk movement (what did his chronicles of love and death have to do with anti-folk scene’s surreal behaviour?) and found a band. But the tenor of those New York times and the democratic process means LEVY’s two albums Rotten Love and Glorious (whose title track The Pierces fell in love with) were wonderfully louche rockers, like a gentler Strokes tinged with the happy-sad blueprint of The Smiths (though Levy says he was never a big Smiths fan until after the comparison). “Producers beefed us up and made it sound like that; I don’t think the songs warranted it,” James recalls. “But we were young. And always conflicted about how to be.”
At least LEVY got signed, to One Little Indian. The label released both albums but after the latter, dropped the band following a European tour with The Maccabees. Levy split the band, citing, “too much pressure and expectation and the fun sucked out of it,” and moved to Austin, Texas: “I couldn’t deal with New York and I wanted to abandon music. But In Austin, I met some people who offered me studio time.” Blood Red Rose was the result, a more rootsy take on Yvel’s new-found Levy sound, a dark’n’dreamy ‘60s blend that much better suited James’ deep and soothing delivery.
Blood Red Rose included an acoustic version of “Holy Water”, reprised for Pray To Be Free and one of the most beautifully tender and mirth-free moments. More jocular and knowing is “Precious Age Of 13,” whose original can be found on James’ third privately pressed album, 2009’s Promising Young Talent. The new version is the new album’s odd — and oddest — one out, being half-sung in Hebrew (the words come from the passage James memorised for his bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual). It’s also the album finale, yet on a record all about love and war between the sexes, “Precious Age Of 13” also doubles as a curtain-raiser, with James, at 13, experiencing what his life will become as a man — lust, loneliness, pain, and more lust. “I love that song so much,” he says. “I wanted to write a song like Gainsbourg but I couldn’t sing in French, so I sing in Hebrew instead. It’s the only Hebrew I know!”
James’ Jewish roots helped support him during eight years as an emergency aid (on Sundays) to a firm of Jewish funeral directors. But he finally chucked the job in last year, sensing that life was about to change with Guy’s intervention. And given Guy has given James’ sumptuous songs the rich settings they always so richly deserved, and given The Pierces’ version of “Glorious”, he won’t need any part-time job any time soon. Timing, after all, is everything. With Pray To Be Free, James Levy is no longer conflicted or misguided. His prayers have been answered, and destiny has decreed that he’s finally free.