Album Review – Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno (Self-Titled)

The dynamic legacies of the various dialects of American roots music will never sustain into the future amid the ever-present onslaught of sonic gentrification if they don’t find willing human vessels to help shepherd them forward not just with a sense of obligation, but with a passion and vigor that becomes infectious with the audience.

The foundational building block of much of American roots music often referred to as “old-time” has already been favorably graced in this manner by the youth, passion, and talent of Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, both as a pairing, and in their exclusively old-time quartet The Onlies, and from the time when they were young enough to be labeled prodigies.

Now that their college years have concluded and they’ve already forged a legacy for themselves in the old-time realm—and in the singer-songwriter sphere with Vivian’s first record—the two have chosen to tackle traditional country music proper with their new self-titled offering. No, do not expect gentle cooing as these two stare longing into each other’s eyes. This record is full of harrowing tales of heartbreak amid the war that is the human emotion of love, just like a lot of the greatest traditional country music has done through the years, with the moan of the steel guitar emulating the pull of heartstrings, and fiddle, guitar, and banjo interplaying with the verses.

From the opening song “Will You” about the worry of telling a loved one about infidelity, to the fiddle start off of “Leaving On Our Minds,” and the tinkling piano laying the path in “My Teardrops Say,” the full array of heartbreak is on display in this album, while also representing a fairly diverse set of approaches to traditional country. The emotional expenditures may be messy, but the musical approach is always purposeful and smart, with the soothing voice of Vivian and the accompaniment by Riley resulting in softer landings than most hard country efforts.

Variety is an asset for Vivian and Riley on the record, and they also don’t completely abandon their old-time touch. It’s on full display in the song “On Account of You,” while also inferring much of how the album comes together.

But most notably endearing this album to the listener is the melodic prowess on display in numerous episodes. “Hollowed Hearts” will leave you haunted, as will the next to last song, “You Don’t See Me.” Words can only go so far in conveying despair. Match it with the right melody and the results can be crushing. This is where the deep study and dedication to the art of music pays off for this pair, and for the audience.

The album also includes a bit of a riddle to solve with the song “Red Hen.” Though the message isn’t implicit, and may land differently depending on who is listening, it seems to deal with our current level of discourse and civility in society, the compelling urge to speak up or not, and perhaps a certain incident involving a restaurant in Vivian Leva’s hometown of Lexington, Virginia.

For the most part, Vivian Leva takes the lead singing, but Riley’s contributions can’t be brushed off as just secondary. Along with taking turns in the lead spot for the song “Love and Chains,” it’s the chemistry of these two that ultimately intermingles into a roots music symphony of two. Add the tasteful production of Grammy-winning Cajun roots legend Joel Savoy to these eleven original songs, and there’s not much to quibble about here.

With a refreshing lack of looking to be hip or herded towards some trend, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno turn in a record that marks traditional country as the latest discipline to be graced with their collaborative magic and dedicated passion, while still remaining steeped in their roots of old-time. With the results here, hopefully they choose to keep traditional country in their repertoire for a good while.


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