Album Review: Chicago – XXXVI: Now

I don’t know when I became an actual fan of Chicago, but I do know that I have been one for over half of my life. Heck…I’ve been one for over three-fourths of my life. Like I said, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know the exact album. Chicago’s 17 changed my life. I was a teenage boy who was in love for the very first time and there was something about that album, with it’s overly produced pop-rock and schmaltzy ballads, that captivated me. It didn’t hurt that they made visually appealing videos that seemed to play every five or ten minutes on M-TV.

That was how I was introduced to Chicago. Little did I know that they had a storied career and in spite of all the polish and sugar-coated pop, they were fairly decent musicians. I discovered that in marching band when our director gave us a medley of Chicago songs to perform. I was suddenly confronted with jazz rock monsters like 25 Or 6 To 4 and Questions 67 And 68. As I am prone to do, I went out and began purchasing as many of their old albums as I could. As I listened to their catalog I was amazed that one band could go through so many changes to their stye (and line-up) and keep making music. FWIW…Rush and Yes were two more bands that affected me in the same way.

By the time I had reached my early Twenties, Chicago had morphed into a rather tame (and lame) version (some would say mockery) of itself. Gone were the jazz rock meanderings. In their place were Ron Nevison power ballads. Although I continued to watch their career, I didn’t consider myself a fan of the direction they had gone off in. By the time I reached my Thirties, Chicago had pretty much stopped releasing new music and had transitioned into a tribute act. I saw them live during this part of their career and I must say, they were incredible. They stuck to the old stuff and went about recreating it note for note.

They did release a few albums during this period, including Stone Of Sisyphus, which had been shelved over ten years earlier, after the record company was displeased with it. A couple of Christmas albums and an album produced by one of the guys from Rascal Flatts were released amidst a multitude of compilation and live albums. By the time my Forties rolled around I simply assumed that Chicago was nothing more than a tribute band devoted to playing tunes from its heyday. Imagine my surprise when I saw that they had released a new album earlier this year.

Imagine even greater surprise when I picked it up and gave it a listen. While not a true return to its jazz rock roots of the late Sixties and early Seventies, it is a nod to its R&B infused late Seventies period. I was expected more middle of the road pop ballads and got much more. I can only hope that this is an indication of where the band may be heading in the future.

Apparently, the tracks on this albums were written (and recorded) independently of one another. Each member came in with his own contributions and then they were touched up as a band. That is surprising because there is a cohesiveness to the album that suggests otherwise.

My track-by-track commentary:

Now – Piano, strings, and bright horns start things off on a positive note. Some fans have never really accepted Jason Scheff as Peter Cetera’s replacement and that is a shame. His voice is eerily similar, which I can only assume was crucial in his hiring. This track sounds like latter-day Cetera pop rock, before David Foster and the skating rink ballads. A very nice guitar solo gives a nod to the late Terry Kath. The interplay between vocalists hearkens back to many of their Seventies radio hits.

More Will Be Revealed – There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here. Every song on the album reminds me of another Chicago song from a different era. This one feels more like one of their Eighties tracks. The production is more organic and the horns are up front in the mix. The guitars are not heavily processed and the drums sound like drums…not loops and samples. I cannot speak highly enough of the interaction between singers. Their voices complement one another nicely.

America – Many of their younger fans don’t realize that Chicago were once political activists and weren’t afraid to comment on social issues in their lyrics. While not in your face, this song contains a trace of the idealism that marked many classic Chicago tracks. This one is more of a nostalgic love song to the country than a protest, but it is nice to see them exploring this territory again. Musically, this one is a mellow (dare I say jazzy) mid-tempo pop number with a soothing melody.

Crazy Happy – Drum loops and muted trumpet begin this one, before it morphs into a jazzy ballad. This is probably the closest they come to the mid-Eighties’ M-TV pop they became known for, but it still feels more organic and less cheesy. There are none of the drum machines and sequencers so prevalent on that era’s hits. It’s nice to hear the horns and woodwinds back up front, instead of an afterthought. It’s also refreshing to hear actual guitar adding to the song.

Free At Last – This is probably the closest that they come to the early stuff. Funky guitar and horns kick it off before changing gears (something the old Chicago did often). I love the tempo changes and the different vibes found on this one. It really does feel like they were channeling their younger selves. Perhaps all those nostalgia shows have paid off. This sounds like a band that has been rejuvenated and is interested in making challenging music again. That has been missing from Chicago for way too long.

Love Lives On – This is a syrupy ballad, but it is less You’re The Inspiration and more If You Leave Me Now. As I said earlier, Jason Scheff doesn’t get enough credit as a vocalist. His voice is as bright as Peter Cetera’s and, if recent YouTube videos are to be believed, is in much better shape. There are times when you swear you are hearing vintage Cetera. I don’t know if that is Jason’s natural way of singing or if it comes from years of having to sing those songs but I do know this, he is just as competent as Cetera ever was.

Something’s Coming, I Know – Latin percussion hints back to such albums as 1974’s VII. This one is a bit funky and is a definite throw-back to Chicago albums of days gone by. It’s almost as if they have deliberately erased everything they did from about 1981 until 1991 from their memories. The guitar solo channels founding member Terry Kath without being derivative.

Watching All The Colors – I love the finger-picked acoustic guitar and the horns that start this one off. A flute joins in with the “oohs” and “aahs” and you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1972. I think this bears repeating, I LOVE hearing the brass and woodwinds being used as the focal point of the songs, instead of background noise. I am also digging the vocal melodies and harmonies that are a hallmark of the Chicago sound.

Nice Girl – You have to wonder what had inspired this band to go in this direction after years of chasing adult contemporary pop hits? It’s as if they have thrown their hands up in the air and said, “We’re just going to write real Chicago songs no matter what.” I couldn’t be more pleased. Yes, this is still pop music, but it recaptures the adventure and experimentation that had gotten lost after Terry Kath’s death. There are genuine musical excursions on this album that make you go, “Whoa…this is REAL Chicago.”

Naked In The Garden Of Allah – Remember how I said that Chicago used to be fairly political? Well…on this psychedelic trip they take another dive in that pool. The lyrics aren’t up front and in your face, but they still touch upon topics that could be considered controversial. Musically, this one has a couple of different vibes. As is expected, there is an Middle Eastern flavor to some of it, but there are other elements that pop up unexpectedly, like a fiddle solo. It’s good to see them take some chances. Interestingly enough, this one sounds the least like Chicago, at least until the mid-section build up.

Another Trippy Day – This one is a bonus track on the iTunes’ version. It begins with some…well…trippy keyboards and horns. A rubbery bass line carries things along. There’s a definite Seventies’ feel to this one. Chicago did make a brief excursion into disco-flavored dance territory and this one kind of has that vibe. It’s less processed and goofy, but still, it’s got that feel.

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