(MS MUSIC; 2015)
The first time I listened to this new CD by former Beach Boys collaborator and poet Stephen Kalinich (teamed up with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven), I was a bit groggy and exhausted from too much multi-tasking. That caused a curious reaction: the aptly named opener “Rude Awakenings” hit me like a long-lost track by R..E.M. Damned if Kalinich’s phrasing and some of the very long lyrical passages didn’t come across kinda Michael Stipe-ish. Additionally, the positive thinking/”why can’t this world be a whole lot better?” ethos that informs these tracks found me more receptive than I might’ve been on another day, sick as I’ve been lately of war, stupid politicians and an even stupider populace as revealed by recent news. I didn’t know of Kalinich’s association with Dennis and Brian Wilson in the ’60s (“Be Still” and “Little Bird” are among his recorded collaborations with the band) until I looked up info on him for this review, and I was more than a little amazed. But what matters here is not so much past associations, impressive though they may be, but rather the deeply empathetic lyrical approach Kalinich and Tiven take to the human condition, and the willingness to bare their souls. Take the tune “Harmony, Inner Peace and Tenderness,” which is about as unambiguous a song title as I’ve encountered recently. “Love will bring you into rhythm/You are a dear, sweet soul/But the power of love embraces you/When you lose control/In practical situations, rely on it without procrastinations,” our therapeutic duo implores. And y’know what? It kinda works; I started feeling better! Perhaps the no-frills plaintive approach here is just what the doctor ordered. Although there are a LOT of words coming at you in songs like “I Choose Life” (clearly that is the case with these guys), “Blue Teal Wall” and several other tracks, and some of these numbers are more like poems with musical backing than actual songs, you can’t question the energy or conviction behind what is being said. Even if obvious at times, we probably NEED to hear queries like “If you believe in love/And a God who’s great/What does he make of these explosions of hate?” (that one is in the mid-tempo, terrorism-referencing “Explosions of Love”). You’ll probably find yourself slipping into an introspective or meditative state as Kalinich keeps serving it up straight. Hey, that rhymes, and so does he, OFTEN! It may veer into hippy-dippy territory at times, but Kalinich is writing about real things and real feelings, and he’s been around long enough to bemoan what the human race is facing, and to have strong thoughts on the subject.
Something that helps on this record is the quality of the musicianship; there’s an especially pleasing combination of horns and harmonica on several songs. Jon Tiven clearly oversaw most of the arrangements, with his wife Sally joining in on bass, and Cody Dickinson (from the North Mississippi All-Stars) doing some fine drumming. There are also guest appearances by Brian May and Steve Cropper on guitar. It all succeeds in contributing to the sense of a distinctive sound being forged here; this thing has guts and a clear emotional through line that pulls you into it. The artists CARE, and that is more than can truly be said of most modern records. “Life is a fucking zoo/What animal are you?” is the refrain in “Life Is a Fucking Zoo,” a memorable tune that makes its point in a catchy, unpretentious manner. And that’s the thing about EACH SOUL HAS A VOICE: It just talks to you straight, tells you that it cares, and tells you that you’re not alone. Sure, it’s wordy and maybe a bit preachy at times, but it comes from the most heartfelt of places. “Too many polls/Too many words/Too much information to be heard/Do the best you can/Bow down to NO man,” our communal pals state on the title track. That kind of clarity is rather refreshing, don’t you think? And if you’ve got a nice beat and bluesy harmonica blowing in the background, isn’t that just the sort of sonic affirmation you need to accompany your ascent to higher consciousness, or whatever you wanna call it? “Make a diamond out of charcoal/Before you smoke your next bowl/Appreciate all that is here for you,” Kalinich implores in his philosophically offhand manner. The guy is an authentic human being, someone who cares and SHARES, and I’m glad this record exists as a document that there are still some of those folks out there.