Heavenly Records – home to remarkably diverse mix of established acts (Saint Etienne, Edwyn Collins) and breaking up-and-comers (The Soft Pack, Stealing Sheep) – appear to have bagged themselves a rather enjoyable Americana double-act.
Americana is a genre of contradictions. At its simplest it refers to bands who look back stylistically to American roots music; although fans of Okkervil River are more likely to listen to The Roots than anything resembling the Soggy-Bottom Boys. Despite lyrical references to the Old West, wide open prairies, and endless highways, Americana tends to be music made and enjoyed by urbanites, and not even necessarily American urbanites. London is full of excellent Americana acts, many of whom regularly tour in Germany and other rather non-American places.
The cover of James Levy and the Blood Red Rose’s debut album, brimming with retro clothes, awkward poses, and loopy cursive fonts, screams AMERICANA! Yet Levy has not hitchhiked to the studio straight from Louisiana: he’s a New York resident who has supported the Maccabees and is buddies with the bassist from Coldplay.
In keeping with Americana’s ambiguous definitions, Levy walks a fine line between authentic and stupid. This is clear from the opening bars of Pray to be Free‘s first track, as Levy’s incredible baritone emerges assuredly and sings “Well I feel darkness and I feel rain/I want to kiss you, I must refrain”. It’s a lyrically questionable start to the album, but thankfully one from which Levy and his fellow singer Allison Pierce quickly recover. 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. But even when the pair aren’t slapping thighs and dancing jigs there is manifest charm in humble little tracks like ‘Bums in Love’ (“I wish I was… a bum in love”).
So whether or not Americana is an authentic tribute to the heart of traditional American music, or just another way to write some sweet songs with strings, James Levy and his Rose pull it off a treat.