For James Levy, Pray To Be Free is another crack at success that he didn’t achieve with previous band Levy. After that moniker was put to bed, he went through his archive of songs and recruited Allison Pierce (The Pierces) to duet with him. The resulting LP, released under the name of James Levy & The Blood Red Rose and produced by Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman, is a concise and fairly straightforward attempt at recreating the magic of the orchestral pop of the ’60s.
The appeal for some part of the reasonably brief record (35 minutes that go by incredibly quickly) is seeing how the both the vocals of Levy and Pierce intertwine and Crying Myself To Sleep is where the combination really works well. Both singers – his voice deep and slightly gravelled whilst hers is strong and seductive – sing individually before coming together at the end for the clincher: “I guess I’ll be alright today but I’ll cry myself to sleep tonight”.
When they’re at their best the songs really soar in a way reminiscent of Camera Obscura‘s recent output. Even if Sneak Into My Room is the Romeo & Juliet of love songs (see lyrics like “I want to kiss you but I must refrain” and “Society will make us pay”) it’s still immensely enjoyable fare. These are the tracks that make the most of their elaborate arrangements, but on slow numbers like Crying To The River such use is more restrained and, as such, doesn’t completely overshadow the song.
However, when you get to the middle section of the record, things start to get a bit samey. The horns towards the conclusion of Keep My Baby feel cabaret-esque and trample all over the tone of the song. Positively East Broadway, despite a lovely chorus, is far too generic and the title track just repeats every single romantic lyrical cliché over and over again until you’ve grown weary and cynical about the whole concept of love.
Towards the end the repetition starts to fade. Bums In Love is what it says on the tin subject-wise (“I wish I was a bum in love”) but it’s beautifully simple as plucked guitar goes up against theatrical strings. The closing track is even better and completely different – Precious Age Of 13 speaks to teenage adolescence via a country shuffle and is rather delightful for it.
The idea of Pray To Be Free is a good one, and there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that it works. But it also runs out of steam and falls into pastiche territory. Yet despite such misgivings it’s a decent enough record that deserves a follow-up, if only so that we can hear more of Levy and Pierce singing together.