Music Review: Chicago, "Chicago XXX"
Release Date: March 21, 2006
· Official Site
by Paul Schultz
Published: April 13, 2006
For being the band's first complete album of original material since Twenty 1 appeared over fifteen years ago, Chicago XXX is a lot better than it has any right to be. Beautifully ordered harmonies and horn arrangements grace the project, leading one to ask the inevitable question: Where have these guys been? The answer is that we've only heard bits and pieces of them in the last decade, making this album's worth of new songs a welcome presence by affirming that their musical legacy of nearly forty years goes on.
There may be another question you are asking yourself... What is up with the album numbering? How did we get from 21 to 30? Let's try to address that, and then we can move on with our lives. Their 22nd album to be officially released (more on that later) was Night and Day in 1995, a collection of
reworked big band standards. Though not well-received at the time, in
retrospect it can be seen as a precursor to the brief fling with swing
popularized by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Royal Crown Revue, among others. A pair of greatest hits compilations titled The Heart of Chicago marked the 30th anniversary of the band. Both albums contained two new tunes, with Volume I featuring the #1 Adult Contemporary hit "Here in My Heart" and "The Only One" and Volume II giving us "All Roads Lead To You"
and the James Pankow-penned "Show Me A Sign." This would be
considered their 23rd and 24th releases leading up to Chicago 25: The Christmas Album in 1998. The cusp of the millennium saw Chicago XXVI - The Live Album, which had a couple more new studio tracks, "Back To You" and "If I Should Lose You." Are you with me now? Because here's where the numbering gets a little dicey. Yet another collection of hits came out in 2002, The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning, making this 2-CD set album number 27. Release number 28 comes in the form of Chicago: The Box, a five-disc career retrospective put together by
Rhino Records in 2003. Among it's "new" songs were three
culled from the Stone of Sisyphus project, including "All The Years,"
the blistering title track, and "Bigger Than Elvis," Jason Scheff's gorgeous ode to his father, who was Presley's bassist. The Stone of...
what? Around 1993, Chicago collaborated with producer Peter Wolf who
prodded them to create some compelling and experimental music that was to become their follow-up to Twenty 1. Their record company decided it was not radio-friendly enough, and the project was shelved. While I don't condone bootlegging, it'd be worth your while to track down the remaining tunes from this long-lamentably-unreleased album since it will likely never see the light of day. Finally, last year brought us still another repacking of songs in the form of Love Songs. The only thing previously unreleased on here was a live version of "After the Love Has Gone"
with Earth, Wind & Fire. This would be considered their 29th release.
Robert Lamm: piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond organ, vocals
Lee Loughnane: trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet
James Pankow: trombone
Walt Parazaider: saxophones, flutes
Bill Champlin: Hammond organ, piano, Fender Rhodes, vocals
Jason Scheff: bass, vocals
Tris Imboden: drums
Keith Howland: guitar
So, that brings us to the nice round number of thirty. When I heard Jay
DeMarcus from the country band Rascal Flatts would be taking the reins as producer, I was cautiously optimistic. I wasn't too sure about Lenny Kravitz producing the band at one time, but when "The Only One" turned out to be an outstanding anthem, I decided not to be too anxious about who would helm the production of future endeavors. Though he was busy with his band crafting their latest release, Me & My Gang, DeMarcus shows
himself to be an admirer of Chicago's musical tradition and takes great
care to utilize the talents of all the members to create a sound worthy of their
history. His production tries not to stray too far from the tried and true
sound of post-1980's Chicago, though somehow I figured there would be more of a country influence to the proceedings than what resulted.
The album's not perfect and the first thing to grab my attention upon the first listen-through was the sequencing. It's front-loaded with virtually all the ballads appearing one right after another. This is the only album I can think of (other than the Now That's What I Call Music! series) where I would recommend playing the tracks in reverse order. The first single released is "Feel" and with its trip-hop beat you get the first impression of something truly different. Alas, this foray into modernity is as experimental as it is going to get. It's nice that Robert Lamm's vocals are featured on a wide-spread release, though there's barely a sign of Chicago's signature horns to be heard. That's why starting at the back and working your way forward is a more satisfying experience. That way you start with the same song, only the horns are much more prominent, and you get a cool orchestral ending.
A number of Scheff compositions make the cut here (ironically, nearly all of the aforementioned ballads) and DeMarcus co-writes quite a few of them.
Champlin and Lamm get in the songwriting game as well, with the only notable exception being Pankow, who has provided some memorable tunes in the past. Lyrically, the songs are pretty pedestrian with only a couple of lines standing out in "90 Degrees and Freezing" ("The streets are full of people happy/Heading on their way/Why am I the only one who's cold/On such a pretty day?") and "Where Were You" ("Are we two lovers/Who
found each other/Just a moment too late/Are we stronger than fate...we'll never know").
After nearly being put to sleep by the first half dozen songs, the jazz-fusion piece "90 Degrees and Freezing" jolts you out of your reverie and is one of the album's highlights. The horns become progressively more pronounced with each successive track, and the music gets jazzier. The bluesy "Already Gone" has a rhythmic extended instrumental conclusion and features some fine muted horn play. This is not to say that the ballads are necessarily bad; they're just bunched together, which make each piano introduction seem repetitious. Still, it's nice to hear a real piano in lieu of the programmed keyboards so prevalent in the David Foster-era. The harmonies are exquisite, with background vocal assists from Toto alumni Bobby
Kimball ("Caroline") and Joseph Williams ("King of Might Have Been"). For variety, we even get a female vocalist thrown in the mix. "Why Can't We" features the edgy country vocals of Shelly Fairchild,
and she blends well with Champlin. Having already heard the R&B group Jade's
collaboration on the wonderful "Dream a Little Dream of Me" from Night
and Day, the introduction of the opposite sex wasn't, therefore, such a
shock. Scheff's vocals occasionally border on whiny, but everyone one else
is on top of their game. Despite Imboden and Howland being considered
full-fledged members, there were quite a few guest drummers and
guitarists. This was especially true of the much-traveled studio guitarist
Dann Huff, though he has worked on other Chicago albums dating back to 19.
While any true creativity arguably ceased after Stone of Sisyphus was smacked down, the members of Chicago are still vastly talented and put on a good show for XXX. Pankow still has a knack for distinctive horn arrangements, and Champlin and Scheff continue to pleasingly blend harmonious vocals. The CD comes complete with all lyrics in a 16-page booklet that also features a nice centerfold Hollywood Squares-type picture of all the guys, a one-page liner-note introduction and a picturesque scene of the Windy City's waterfront.
01. Feel (Hot Single Mix)
02. King of Might Have Been
04. Why Can't We
05. Love Will Come Back
06. Long Lost Friend
07. 90 Degrees and Freezing
08. Where Were You
09. Already Gone
10. Come To Me, Do
11. Lovin' Chains
13. Feel (Horn Section Mix)