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Music Review: Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven - Shortcuts To Infinity/Symptomology

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Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven are among the most creative and innovative musical duos to come down the pike in many a moon. If one disc of their new two CD package doesn’t prove it to you, the other one will.

Lyricist and harmony vocalist Kalinich is perhaps best known for his work with the Beach Boys and songwriter P. F. Sloan. The multi-instrumentalist Tiven (lead vocals, tenor/alto/baritone sax, guitar, slide guitar, piano, Hammond organ, percussion, harmonica) cut his teeth working with the likes of Don Covay, Arthur Alexander, and Wilson Pickett. According to their publicity, it was Sloan who introduced the pair to each other. Two hundred some songs later, Kalinich and Tiven found themselves in the happy position of not only finding a supportive record company, but one that got behind the idea of putting out a double-disc debut.

The result can’t be fairly described as a collection of 30 songs unified by anything beyond the versatile musicianship of Tiven, the words and background vocals of Kalinich, and the only other player to perform on most of the cuts, bassist Sally Tiven. Instead, we’re getting two distinct albums with different titles that just happen to be bundled together. Shortcuts To Infinity is their “straight” album emphasizing the long, poetic lines of Kalinich. For Symptomology, the duo created two alter egos, Jack #ashtag (Tiven) and Reverend Stevie Nobody (Kalinich). According to Kalinich, “They are a little ruder and cruder than us; they lack the ability to edit themselves or hold back what would embarrass Jon or myself.”

For his part, Tiven said the team realized they were issuing a lot of music at once, but felt the project was akin to a good novel, an experience that would need more time than usual to digest. In particular, he says listeners will need to hear both albums more than once to absorb the profundities of Kalinich’s lyrics. He makes a very good point. While the always up-tempo musical support alone is worth the price of admission, Tiven often doesn’t as much sing as recite or proclaim the usually very long lines of Kalinich’s verse.

Much of Shortcuts To Infinity is Kalinich and Tiven playing some old-fashioned rock—with very nice sax sections as support—for songs reflecting on the meaning of life’s struggles. Songs like “It Takes Time,” “Fingers 2 the Sky,” and “Harsh” aren’t about personal relationships or broken-hearted emotions, but rather are very literary musings about human existence from a unique perspective.

For example, Dylan is one of the things in which the duo says they believe in “I Believe in Elephants.” The harmonica lead litany also includes Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, P. F. Sloan, ostriches, rarely seen sanity, and “taking back what belongs to us.” Speaking of the harp, “Climb Stone Walls” evokes the Mick Jagger of the ‘70s in a song about what it takes to fight for freedom. Channeling a bit of the Mothers of Invention, “Red Black Horizon” takes an early ‘60s R&B setting and overlays it with dark musings about religious philosophies not curing any disease. Likewise, “We Only Have the Moment” sounds like a bit of old time rock with lines proclaiming that “We only have the moment to realize our potential” and seek out the existential.

One standout is “God Helps Those” where Willie Jones of the Royal Jokers shares lead vocals in an almost country ballad about God helping those who get out of their own way. For rock fans, it’s hard to beat “Out of the Darkness” featuring Queen’s Brian May playing some hard-edged guitar on the extended jam. In another reminder of their musical prowess, the haunting “A Touch of Sanity” offers guitar very reminiscent of Mr. Hendrix.

And now for something completely different.

Symptomology–also billed as Yo Ma Ma-Symptomology–takes us into the far less philosophical or profound world of Jack #ashtag and Reverend Stevie Nobody. The opening track, “You Want What You Want,” announces the gloves are off, at least in terms of word choice. Then, some of the song titles signal what to expect: “Let’s Get Stoned,” “Don’t Fuck With Me,” “Once My Zits Go Away,” “Weed,” and “Cooler Than You.” The refrain of “Cul de Sac” is “I scratch my balls” followed by a list of the places to enjoy it. When they “Snap My Fingers,” shit happens.

On this disc, there’s a series of songs about disagreeable women. Of all people, Steve Cropper plays a restrained, almost hidden guitar on “Time Bomb” which is about a lady who causes more grief than the Middle East. I wonder if she’s the same girl the guys advise to “Grow A Pair” in the set’s funkiest track. Or if she’s the one they describe in “Hole” when they’re singing “You’re a hole.”

But not all the tracks are overtly pushing the envelope. For example, it’s “Hard to be a Millionaire” is a funny list of what you can’t do when you’re broke and bumming smokes from winos. “When I Leave My Body” is what happens when the singers travel to the astral plain. The last cut, “End of the Road,” could as easily have fit on Shortcuts To Infinity as it describes what happens at the place where you hope for rainbows which don’t always appear.

Additional credit for this set must go to producer Mark Linett and all the drummers who kept the beat going including Chester Thompson, Cody Dickinson, Andreas Werner, Billy Block, and the improbably named Todd Snare. Still, Shortcuts To Infinity/Symptomology is the Kalinich/Tiven show and I’m certainly hopeful more of those 200 songs—as well as new material—will be forthcoming. Play it once for the music and the laughs and then, as Tiven suggests, play it again for the wordsmithing. If you’re like me, you’ll feel like you hit on a real discovery.

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About Wesley Britton