Graded on a Curve:
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, (s/t)

In 2018, Vivian Leva released her swell full-length debut Time Is Everything on the Free Dirt label, its ten selections cohering into an uncommonly rich and robust dose of classic country featuring pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin, Leva’s powerful lead vocals and harmonies that reached back to the brothers Everly, Stanley, Louvin, and Delmore: indeed, the set confidently tapped into the old-time root while being unshackled to the past. Riley Calcagno contributed substantially to that album, and through increased input as instrumentalist and songwriter, he gets co-billing on their new self-titled effort. Its eleven solid songs are available on CD right now through Free Dirt, with the 150gm vinyl shipping in early April.

Fans of Time Is Everything need not worry, for this jointly billed follow-up doesn’t mess with a good thing. Riley Calcagno, in addition to collaborating with Vivian Leva on her debut, also plays with her in the stringband The Onlies, with the couple residing in Portland, OR (she’s originally from Lexington, VA, while he’s from Seattle).

Opener “Will You” provides Leva’s vocals, sweet but sturdy, with an instrumental platform that blends the deft execution of contemporary Americana with a touch of the honkytonk, thanks in part to Chris Stafford’s pedal steel. The old-school flavor, strengthened by the drumming of Matty Meyer and the bass of Trey Boudreaux, helps to counteract the overly polite atmosphere that afflicts too much current Americana, with the fiddle of Calcagno, who also plays lead guitar on the track (Leva handles the rhythm) the icing on the cake.

As its title might insinuate, “Leaving on Our Minds” brings the honkytonk right into the foreground, with Leva’s singing fully up to the task. Calcagno’s harmony vocals enhance the scenario, but again, it’s his fiddle that really shines, though in the track’s favor (ditto the record as a whole) is a decided lack of straining for that barroom ambience (impressive as Leva and Calcagno are both so young), even as the pedal steel is large in the scheme and there’s even a sprinkling of ’60s-ish pop-country piano courtesy of Sam Fribush.

Instead of laboring for effect, there is obvious comfort on display as Leva and Calcagno shift between modes as the tracks proceed, and inside the same song, even. The tone of Leva’s voice in “Hollowed Hearts,” tender yet passionate, places her in the tradition of smart country-Americana artists such as Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and Iris DeMent, as Calcagno sets the fiddle temporarily aside for rhythm guitar. And so, a discerning, somewhat folky situation, but then the song undergoes a countryish uptick via Meyer’s drumming midway through, which signals a fine solo spot from Stafford.

Beneficial to the album is the bedrock that’s delivered by this talented core band and with assured production by Joel Savoy. But the quality of the songwriting, co-credited to the duo, easily justifies the equal billing, as does Calcagno’s sheer versatility. “On the Line” features him singing harmony and playing banjo and guitars, both rhythm and electric lead.

Unsurprisingly, the banjo deepens the connection to old-time without undercutting the music’s of-the-moment essence. And in the following track “Red Hen,” the duo exudes similarities to indie folk, though the unadorned beauty of Leva’s vocals continues to highlight her ties to country tradition, a relationship that flourishes in the next cut, the missing someone lament as beauty move “Biding All My Time.”

The record’s boldest maneuver into the pop sphere comes through “Love and Chains” as Calcagno takes the initial vocal lead and Fribush adds some Wurlitzer organ (that inches into almost Fender Rhodes territory). Calcagno’s singing is effective, yet too much of it could’ve plummeted the record into James Taylorish innocuousness, so the duet with Leva is a plus for the song and the LP. His fiddling in the next track, the decidedly stringband informed “On Account of You,” is one of the album’s standouts.

“My Teardrops Say” saunters back into the ’60s pop country zone via Fribush’s piano (bringing Floyd Cramer to mind), though there is still plenty of zesty pedal steel in counterbalance. From there, the indie folkish “You Don’t See Me” is a late delight, partly because it’s exquisitely sung but also through Calcagno’s fiddling, which underscores his classical background, but subtly, as it also taps into the drone (a uniting factor in Appalachian and Minimalist music)

“You Don’t See Me” consists entirely of fiddle, voice, and Leva’s guitar, the cut establishing a productive doorway through which the duo could travel on a potential follow-up. But as the full band returns, this album ends with the confident country flair of “Good and Gone,” making clear that Leva and Calcagno could easily remain on this path to fruitful effect.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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