REVIEW: “Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno” is Plucked from 1950s Kitchen Radio


Lately, the only criticism I can muster for some recent releases is the poor CD artwork. Certainly, this deserved a better cover than this slapdash image & oversized typesetting splashed across the front. Why am I so adamant about artwork? Because I always believe art should represent the music. People see the art before they hear the music. The 11-cut/43-minute Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno self-titled album (Free Dirt Records-Drops March 12) is far better then the package.

Grammy-winning Joel Savoy produced the songs meticulously & mindful of the magic that once came from Owen Bradley. He’d be pleased with this (“My Teardrops Say”).

The old-time mood of the melodies has some bittersweet, optimistic classic country words & delicious harmonies. Vivian’s vocals have clarity, & the set is simplistic with dips into pop-country once popular in the 50s/60s. The Sandy Posey (“Single Girl” “I Take It Back”), Sue Thompson (“Norman,” “Paper Tiger”), & Robin Ward (“Wonderful Summer”) tradition.

Many songs are flexible (“Leaving on Our Mind”). Not a lot of thinking required. Songs many listeners can relate to. Not locked into cliches, silliness. They maintain a respective sharply poetic country nerve. The duo acknowledges that their country listeners are not as simple as city folk would believe. This is intelligent country music.

These phrases have a percentage of cleverness, playfulness & punch. Good stories in a country tradition. “On the Line,” has exceptional words, & vocalizing. A Riley banjo, Chris Stafford pedal steel performance – that dazzles. Vivian’s resonance in her voice is a thrill. Not as hard & deeply traditional as Iris DeMent.

Vivian often projects silkiness in her all-American mountain accent. Coherent acoustic picking. This duo is quite accomplished with their genre. Though it sounds at times they plucked it out of a 1950s kitchen radio in Kentucky none are oldies. Each is fresh, possesses its own dynamic & pleasantries.

My only suggestion of “On the Line,” is that by the 3rd chorus the band should let loose a little before going back to the familiarity of the chorus. The musicians deserve that reprieve to showcase their abilities. This beautiful song sounds ripe for a few bars with steam.

“Red Hen,” has good guitar clarity, phrasing & piano. “On Account of You” fires up an Appalachian fiddle with dance hall exuberance. “You Don’t See Me,” has a fiddle that will send chills down your spine. A mix of sawing & picking done so well.

The band: Vivian (lead vocals/rhythm), Riley (lead guitar/rhythm/banjo/fiddle/vocals), Trey Boudreaux (bass), Matty Meyer (drums), Sam Fribush (piano/Wurlitzer) & Chris.

Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Waylon & Merle would cover these songs. Each carries cleverness of Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark & Cindy Walker (“You Don’t Know Me”). Even the more simplistic tunes have richness in their originality. Lyrics in the CD – you can sing along & enjoy their word-play. Ain’t a bad tune in the sack.

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