Album Review: Levi Parham “These American Blues”

A couple of years ago, I clicked play on Levi Parham’s daytrotter session and by the end of the first song I was checking to see when he’d be touring in New England. Parham is from southeast Oklahoma and doesn’t make it this way too much; I finally got to see him at the beginning of June at Atwood’s and he wrung himself out for a small, but very appreciative crowd. Just before Levi went on, I heard a guy say to the bartender, “I’m gonna shoot off in five minutes, so let me settle up.” I looked over an hour later, and he was still there, eyes glued to the stage. Levi is a captivating performer, with a searing voice and deep appreciation for blues music as the backbone of rock, country, and Americana. He slides easily between genres, and his new album These American Blues is one you should have in heavy rotation this summer.

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The title track is a rocky rumination on the connection and distance enabled by our digital age. The catalyst for the song was when Levi’s father Bob got a smartphone and declared, “There’s nothing left to find out.” Later in the song, Levi remarks on a woman’s “profile”–as all of us know, there is often quite a gap between the online and analog versions of ourselves, prompting Levi to sing, “They call it a dream, but I can’t see how / I been living these American blues.” The song has a southern rock kind of feel, with a heavy, driving beat and ringing chord progressions.

Steal Me,” the second pre-released single, moves with a soul-influenced sensibility. Levi has said that his biggest vocal influences are Van Morrison and Sam Cooke and this song fits comfortably into that style, with a nice, funky rhythm guitar, a killer B3 organ, and awesome throwback backing vocals from Jaimee Harris, Noelle Hampton, and Emily Shirley.

I’m Behind Ya” is one of my favorites, with a great slide guitar played by Seth Lee Jones. The song has swagger, especially when Levi climbs the vocal register and sings the high notes, “I’ll be coming when you calling / Oh I just ain’t your best friend. / I cannot express enough / You know I am behind ya.” (When he hit those notes at Atwood’s, our friend at the bar whistled enthusiastically and ordered another drink.)

The album shifts to “Held in High Regard,” a shout out to John Moreland, a fellow Okie who crushed me at Newport last year, whom Parham captures perfectly, with his “heart bare everywhere you go.” There are references to Moreland’s work, like the line, “Folks getting high on the tulsa heat,” alluding to Moreland’s most recent album; but the driving message of the song seems to be that the key to being held in high regard is to not care very much about being held in high regard. Moreland is one of the most understatedly powerful performers I’ve ever seen, but the song also perfectly captures his quiet confidence, with its defiant riffs and full sound. It’s interesting because it’s such a fitting tribute without sounding anything like a John Moreland song.

The juxtaposition of these heavier songs with the softer, “Waiting Game,” really works; in fact, it’s the album’s ebb and flow that makes it such a good companion on the road or in the kitchen or on the front porch. “Waiting Game” is fingerpicked, stripped down tune supported by a subtle organ, brush-sticks on the drums, all structured around catchy rhymes that give Parham space to be a little playful and flirtatious in his singing: “All the women wanna hate ya / All the boys they wanna chase ya / You want a good time with both. / Oh, girl ain’tcha been itchin’ / Everything you got, you gonna ditch it / Head overseas to a land of hope.”

When I spoke with Levi a few weeks ago (interview here), he said that he’d picked the right players for this album, and man was he right about that. On my first listen, I kept hearing this incredible piano sprinkled in, the perfect complement without ever taking over the song. “Who the hell is that?” I thought, and it was Radoslav Lorković, who has toured extensively with Ellis Paul around here and worked for a while with Bo Ramsey. The dude is nasty, and he adds so much to this album, especially on the final song, “Love Comes Around,” which is that song from daytrotter that hooked me. It’s just as good with this full band treatment, adding texture while losing none of the earnestness and passion.
You can pre-order These American Blues and get more information about Levi Parham at his website. Elmore magazine is streaming the album here. Get it.