Album Review: Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno – ‘Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno’

The self-titled offering from Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno may not reinvent the wheel stylistically, but the generally warm presentation and brutally sharp writing nonetheless makes it one of the most engaging releases of the year thus far.

Preamble

This is one of those cases where my anticipation for a new album scanned as more of a wake-up call for the artists involved.

What I mean is, while I was vaguely familiar with Vivian Leva’s debut album, Time is Everything, back in 2018, I really should have given it a better spotlight. So, for context: Leva is a musical prodigy from Virginia who descends from a musically inclined family, thereby embracing her heritage and looking to record old time roots music with a fresh sensibility. Her musical partner thus far has been Riley Calcagno, who was heavily involved with her own aforementioned debut album and fosters a similar story, honing his talents through the old time band the Onlies (that also released an album last year I somehow missed and featured these two).

Now they’re stepping out as a duo with an official debut, looking to capture more of a classic country mold in style and presentation compared to the old-time styles evident on other projects. And I admit my initial excitement for it stemmed solely from its lead single, “Will You,” which is quickly becoming a favorite of the year thus far.

Vivian leva and Riley Calcagno

The review

Of course, that’s also to say that, if you’re familiar with either of these two or dig through their respective backlogs, this new album doesn’t sound far removed from what you’d expect from them. And, speaking as someone who enjoyed that deep-dive, that’s not a complaint. It does have a very familiar feel in its style and presentation, but that’s intentional, and when they pretty much nail every area excellently, this is just a really great country album that needs no qualifiers attached to it. It’s just excellent and one of the best of the year thus far.

For a change, then, let’s get the criticisms out of the way first, of which there are few. But they do mostly center on the vocals, where Leva mostly takes the lead. She’s not the most expressive singer, and when she pushes toward her lower range, like on “My Teardrops Say,” she’s not as effective. But I do like that the production emphasizes her delivery, which supports the mostly pained and lonely content in capturing a general mood across the majority of this record. And while her and Calcagno’s harmonies aren’t stellar, they do blend well together in other ways here, and I like when they trade verses on “Love & Chains.” But that also leads to my other nitpick, in that I wish both of them played off each other vocally a little more, if only to flesh out their dual perspectives explored in greater detail through the content and deepen the dramatic stakes. But there’s also the easy counterargument that Calcagno’s sparse harmonies only emphasizes the distance and loneliness underscoring the actual content, and eventually I grew to love that softer touch.

Of course, the softer touch is part of the point and appeal for this project as a whole. It’s an overall fairly sparse project, but it’s not in any way lacking, and that subtlety is part of why I love it so much, even if I know for others it will scan as sleepy or quaint. Between the lines, though, it’s beautifully organic and textured country music that straddles the edges of their traditional and folk roots – especially the fiddle-led “On Account of You,” which really gives this project a needed boost of energy – and overall serves to highlight the intelligence and emotional complexity in the writing. It also helps that this album can evoke that sound without resorting to the weathered production trademarks that have characterized this brand of music for some time now. Conventional in its actual approach? Sure, but the accent marks are what give it its flavor: from the accordion that creeps through to offer a hint of optimism for the confidence surrounding “Biding All My Time”; the pleasantly warm yet moody acoustics defining “Will You” to suggest a fear for where the relationship is heading; the emphasized, creaking acoustics of “You Don’t See Me” that provides something of a breaking point for this project; or the equally bright, rollicking fiddle and piano interplay driving “Leaving On Our Minds.”

Granted, it’s also worth noting how much the general tone and mood shifts from those chipper, brighter edges to something noticeably more dark and exhausted by its end. A note on the content, for sure, which we’ll get to, but also a note on that aforementioned subtlety that really dominates this project. And I’m not surprised that two of the only tracks here to feature any sort of percussion (and, by extension, some really sweet, languid grooves) in “Love & Chains” or the closer “Good as Gone” are pivotal moments in establishing a changing point in the overall plot.

Now, another easy criticism is that the album can start to run together due to the generally uniform instrumentation and tempo, and indeed, I do wish this album had another moment like “Leaving On Our Minds” or “On Account of You” to better balance things out. But there’s still such a subtle diversity in tones here that gives these tracks a unique personality, like the generally hazy, damn-near meditative “Red Hen” excelling off those gorgeous liquid piano flourishes on the bridge.

But we’ve danced around the actual content throughout this entire review for too long now, and look, the analytical critic in me loves that this establishes itself as a breakup album with a pretty cohesive plot. But I also know that familiar premise alone isn’t the most immediately enticing aspect. So I think what I love most is that aforementioned progression and how it ultimately subverts the expectations (and cliché) that love is enough to fuel a relationship on its own. And it shows right away, from the questions of infidelity on “Will You” that, later on, are revealed to stem from a general distance and loneliness between the two partners here, as well as the allusions to alcoholism. The main character gives in to her vices and wants to make love work, and her significant other is gone too much and generally disinterested, and while the tension is obviously there, it never aims to cast either side as in the wrong. They’re young, they’re trying to figure themselves out, and they’re convinced this is how it’s supposed to work along the way.

If anything, they try to make it work anyway on “Leaving On Our Minds” and convince themselves it will, because … well, they love each other and are generally accepting of those flaws. It’s probably the most oddly progressive take on love I’ve heard since James McMurtry’s “She Loves Me,” and I like that even in those early stages, this never feels overwrought or outright delusional in where it’s heading. Indeed, part of the point for the main character is convincing herself she’s strong enough to break it off and let both of them move on in a healthy manner, where even if they may not want to, they probably need to. And considering this album gets noticeably more bitter and bleak as it progresses, “Good as Gone” is something of a sigh of relief as she finally does break free from that delusion. I do think there’s a few moments where the poetry isn’t as sharply detailed, like on “Hallowed Heart,” or tipping its hat a bit too much to its classic country influences in the hook of “My Teardrops Say,” but for the most part, this is a sharply written take on young relationships and the burdens and expectations placed upon them.

And though I’m only now getting familiar with their writing and playing styles, I’m comfortable saying this album is either artist’s finest offering yet, bringing a compelling, smart lyrical focus to beautifully produced country and folk that offers so much more beneath the surface. Again, the generally quaint, familiar feel likely won’t make it an immediate standout, but my love for it deepened with every listen, and it’s one of the best of the year thus far.

(Very light 9/10)

Favorite tracks: “Leaving On Our Minds,” “Love & Chains,” “Will You,” “Good as Gone,” “Biding All My Time”
Least favorite track: “Hallowed Hearts”

Buy or stream the album.

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