Sometimes roots singers steeped in their old traditions can be a little taxing on a northern ear or city-bred listener. However, Vivian Leva has pieced together a gratifying ten-song collection – Time Is Everything, that is quite listenable even if you’re from the streets of New York, Boston or Chicago.
The songwriting, overall, is spiked with traditional syrups and spices but the arrangements Vivian has applied to her showcase make this medicine go down with a cherry flavor. The opening track “Bottom of the Glass,” is standard fare but the title track “Time Is Everything,” exudes the style that is Vivian Leva. The intricate cleverly slipped in Riley Calcagno acoustic guitar, Jack Devereux’s pedal steel and Vivian’s vibrant vocals paint a beautiful picture in this composition. “Well, we’ve been to the east and we’ve been to the west, Past towns of broken memories, faded love…”
Simple lyric, yet miles away from the corn that passes as country-folk today on the commercial radio stations. And I must emphasize it works because of the tonality in Vivian’s voice. It’s childlike at times but it resounds with authority and a life lived wisely.
While the press notes emphasize her Appalachian and country upbringing in Lexington, VA with musician parents, Leva is strongly positioned in a melodic alt-country that has rich ingredients of traditional music. Now, while that is a mouthful, it rings true for me. I hear the mud and running streams of voices like Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Iris Dement. But I also hear the more contemporary country charm of Nanci Griffith, Kris McKay, and yes, Jackie DeShannon (who had many albums with this type of music but she was dismissed because she made her fame with pop music).
“No Forever,” is a nice upbeat track with fiddles, banjos Calcagno again) and Vivian’s wonderful, confident vocals. The song has an infectious melody and though there seems to only be two musicians playing -- it sounds like an entire band. This is a little barn burner that will get people to leave behind their corn whiskey and get up to dance. And that sometimes – is all a great performer needs...to know they succeeded. This is also a wonderful song on its own – lyrically and melodically. I can even hear it slowed down to a ballad and made even more commercially viable.
“I used to hear what you had to say, now just like my dreams, your words float away…” – this lady knows how to write an original song lyric and tell a story. “Wishes and Dreams,” is performed relatively simply with vocals and guitars, a little banjo support, nice bass and harmony vocals. This song is quite simply: lovely. Ms. Leva’s vocals soar but not like an opera singer or over-emotive diva. She holds her notes with brilliance and feeling. She just unveils so many beautifully poetic lines in her so-called traditional songs – “you were so far but still kept me close, with words of no meaning that filled me with hope.” A little cynical but optimistic in a sad way – but never really sung with anger. This is not a songwriter – this is an artist.
From the Alan Lomax collection in 1956 (Lomax was a man who went out into the fields of the South with a big tape recorder and began to archive field songs by workers, prisoners and unknown musicians who just had a rickety old porch for a stage). “Cold Mountain,” is a song written and performed by a Virginia ballad singer Texas Gladden and has been updated for 2018 by Vivian and Riley Calcagno. For some tunes this old, with that kind of history, it would be a little difficult to relate to. Not here, not when sung by Vivian.
I am also impressed that a young woman like Vivian has the grit, musical reinvention instinct and patience to actually be interested in reviving such old chestnuts and do such an admirable job. There are young people out in the hinterlands who will indeed keep the old traditional music alive and well. Much of it, not even written down just passed down. Vivian is one – and she is stellar at it.
“Why Don’t You Introduce Me as Your Darling,” is a little country/honky-tonk song that is novelty oriented. Shows that Vivian has a sense of humor. Almost sounds like something Hank Williams would have done. As novelty as it sounds if you read the lyrics, it’s a genius of a song because it’s a situation many people have found themselves in. Being introduced to a friend or relative for the first time at a public or private function – but not always properly.
The waltz “Last of My Kind,” is another cover by Ms. Leva – the song was written by Paul Burch and Vivian says she first heard the song by Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms in Washington State. In this tune, another kind of Vivian Leva vocal surfaces. A little deeper in places and the drums add quite a nice touch to the vintage sound.
Vivian comes back with a voice bordering on a soft Buffy Sainte-Marie on “Every Goodbye.” I like the addition of a softly plucked string of a fiddle by both Vivian and Riley. This is poignancy and Vivian’s voice -- it's almost angelic. There is a subdued exuberance in her performance and it just alludes to the fact that Vivian Leva is a natural at interpreting such music. She knows exactly what the lyric needs to get across to a listener. And here, at track 9 I have found no redundancy in her showcase. She has provided a listener a collection of excellent entrainment with wise words and memorable melodies.
Vivian changes her approach and for the first time lets go of the fiddles and banjos and to lead with a piano (Eric Robertson). This is an exquisite ballad – “Here I Am.” As Vivian does here it's a song that could be covered by the likes of a jazz artist like Cassandra Wilson or Diane Krall. While many of Vivian’s songs are wonderful – this is the one that is most powerful. It’s asserting and worthy of being covered by other artists – it’s that good.
Now some have stated that she sings in a traditional, old-world country-folk style because it’s based in Appalachia, it’s vintage balladry in an age-old method. I disagree. Vivian’s voice has the twang and accent and intonation of another time but her voice is firmly tied in today. I think her method is taking this age-old material and style into the next century and she shows her audience that there’s a place for it – still and that it still retains its value. It is Appalachia 2018.
Let’s face it, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett sing a little old-fashioned at times but they are not Tex Ritter or Roy Rogers. They’ve taken the old style and advanced it several steps. So, has Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, The Cox Family, John Prine and bluegrass’ Alison Krauss. Vivian Leva is not retro. She may be dressed in yesterday’s fashion musically but under those threads is a young lady born of today respectfully updated to today’s expectancy. And people who appreciate this type of music – well, they are the beneficiaries.
Though Vivian has shifted from different styles she has done so effortlessly and has maintained her quality throughout. I have my favorites, but for the most part, all ten-tracks have something to interest a listener. The CD is 39 minutes of one sunflower after another with heads held high. Find one, or two.
At some point I would like to hear this young lady try a jug-band tune, no holds barred with a saw, a jug, and washboard because I think she has the voice to hold it all together through a foot-stomping song.
The CD package is an ambitious eight-panel color fold out with all lyrics – readable. A full-color portrait of Vivian appropriately standing in front of a paint-peeling green barn wall. No smile – just a confident “I did this” look on her attractive face. The collection was Produced by Vivian Leva, Riley Calcagno and Joseph Dejarnette (who also played bass & pedal steel on some songs). All the miscellaneous musicians involved with this recording made excellent contributions.
The CD graphic design is courtesy of Dejah Leger.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / June 2018