Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno have made a delightful album that reflects the changes in their lives, moving from old-time and folk country in a more indie roots and folk-pop direction as they’ve moved from Portland, Oregon to Durham, North Carolina. Now going by the stripped-down name of Viv & Riley, they’re reflecting on new maturity and a new community, working at holding on to their roots as they move forward in a troubled and troubling world.
Now well into their mid-twenties with college behind them and moving further into a world of adult responsibilities, they’re mostly in a pensive mood, if the music on Imaginary People is any indication. “Who I was and who I am and who I wanna be / are all imaginary people just out of my reach,” the couple sings in tight harmony in the title song. Though the arrangement prominently features Riley’s fiddle, the full band arrangement complete with a soaring organ highlights the tension between past and future that is a continuing theme.
Leva grew up in a musical family in Lexington, Virginia, and Riley in the Pacific Northwest, attending fiddle camps and festivals from a young age. Leva’s two solo albums (including her debut Time Is Everything and their debut duo album Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno all received critical acclaim, as have their performing and recording stint in The Onlies, an acoustic roots quartet that also includes Sami Braman and Leo Shannon. Those four were named co-artistic directors of Centrum’s Fiddle Tunes, a major honor and major responsibility for such young performers.
They latched onto Alex Bingham of Hiss Golden Messenger to produce the album. Bingham gives the production a lush, shimmering sound, and the top indie musicians they signed on complete the transformation from old-time music to indie folk: Sam Fribush, also of Hiss Golden Messenger; Andy Stack of Wye Oak and Helado Negro; and pedal steel player Whit Wright of American Aquarium. The band then retreated to Bedtown Studios, Bingham’s bucolic lakefront recording space in Virginia, to cut the album.
This album reflects their mixed feelings as they look back and look forward from their new home base. They begin with a look back at where Vivian grew up, in “Kygers Hill.” The difference in sound is immediately apparent, with a warbly plucked guitar leading the full band sound, in a spacious studio sound. The lyrics sometimes read like a diary entry, in a good way: “Bedroom’s looking smaller or am I just getting older?” Viv muses; “…neighbor down the road’s got a new front-end loader; everyone’s jealous.”
The next, “Sauvie Island,” is a fond look back at a favorite place from their former home in Portland. They played this as a guitar and fiddle duo at the 2022 Sisters Folk Festival, their close harmony vocals a definite highlight. Here the arrangement is sweetened with tinkling mandolin and electric piano, and despite the shiny new sound it’s still an acoustic stringband song at its heart. The languid, folkadelic “Flashing Lights” finds them in a new place, nicely capturing that young adult feeling when it seems like a long time since heady early days of youth and falling in love, and recapturing a little bit of that feeling with a magical night out with new friends in a new town.
Riley sings lead on a couple of songs, and they’re both among my favorites. On “How To Lose” he paints a sad picture of someone with a bad home life trying to put a good face on loss that makes it worse. “Is It All Over” is a sardonic, satiric look at the climate crisis, and is a real standout on the album, partly for its generally upbeat, sunny sound and partly for its ironically clcver lyrics that mask his generation’s palpable anxiety about the future. “Do you think they’ll ship us off to the mines on Mars and make us work there? If they do will the towns have bars and a view of some stars and a Warby Parker?”
Just to make sure we know they haven’t forgotten their roots, there’s the string band instrumental “Chance Creek,” the kind of piece they might’ve played at Fiddle Tunes this year; and a strong arrangement of the ancient folk song “The Blackest Crow.” This one is deep, dark and droning, courtesy of Riley’s fiddle, a bowed double bass and Viv’s constant strum of a single chord.
Imaginary People may be a transitional album. It sounds like a strong step in a good direction. Viv & Riley and the musical community they’re part of know how to draw on their roots as they face an uncertain future in which music and other arts might be highly valued gifts of rare comfort.
(Free Dirt, 2023)