The resulting album, particularly gems such as ‘Hung to Dry’ and ‘Pray to be Free’, strikes an effortless balance between pop melodies, country swagger, boy-girl twee, lush string arrangements, and a pair of the most striking and flawless voices you’re likely to hear harmonising all year.Allison Pierce is such a constant and welcome fixture throughout the album that it seems almost an injustice that she doesn’t get equal billing in the band name. Levy’s baritone is a deep, melancholic dirge, and Pierce’s syrupy-sweet tones provide a welcome foil to the solemnity, giving Levy a little slap of pep whenever he becomes too introspective.There are few surprises in the course of the album’s 35 minute run-time. A lovely exception is the brass and atmospheric layered vocals of ‘Keep My Baby’ which sounds almost like a countrified version of Blonde Redhead or School of Seven Bells. The novelty wears off slightly in the second half, the pace dropping substantially with Pierce taking a back seat; and the bland keyboards and slow, repetitive chorus of ‘Positively East Broadway’ bring the momentum of the album to something of a halt.
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.