Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Chicago - Stone of Sisyphus (1994)

On March 22, 1994 Chicago's twenty-second album, Stone of Sisyphus was scheduled for release. The band was forgoing their usual numerical titles. This album was to be a reinvention of sorts.

March 22nd became April 12th. April 12th turned into April 26th. And then April 26th became "September." At some point in this chronology, a decision was made to shelve this album. It was never "officially" to see the light of day.

To this day, while bits and pieces, the occassional song here and there have been released as bonus tracks on various greatest hits compilations. Alternate "solo" versions of certain songs were released by various band members on outside projects. But, truth be told, this album in its original format, has it was originally intended to be released has never "officially" seen the light of day.

But fans remained undeterred. Throughout the mid and late nineties the album did find its way into the hands of the loyal fans who had not forgotten of this band. The more generous of fans rated this the best album Chicago had recorded since the untimely death of guitarist, Terry Kath, in 1978. But even those who were less complimentary went so far as to say it was the best album since the 1985 departure of bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera.

Indeed. If this album had been released on that original Tuesday in late March 1994, the album would have been incredibly well received by the legions of fans who remained disappointed after the overly saccharine Chicago 19 and the rather pedestrian Twenty-1. It had punch, it had balls, and it had that wall of brass that had been so conspicuously absent on the band's eighties albums.

The album opens with All the Years, a Robert Lamm penned tune hearkening back to the political sensibilities he'd injected into Chicago's material of the late sixties and early seventies. A horn-less version had already appeared on Lamm's 1993 solo album, Life Is Good In My Neighbourhood.

The title track is possibly one of the best surprises the band has offered in years. Written by then-guitarist, Dawayne Bailey. Stone of Sisyphus features Lamm and Bailey trading off on the lead vocals with Lamm handling the verses and Bailey handling the choruses and bridge. Bailey's unique sense of humor is present in the lyrics:

Blood sweat and tears turn faith into will

A subtle nod to Chicago's sixties horn-rock contemporaries of years past.

One of the few ballads on the album, Bigger Than Elvis, is bass player Jason Scheff's tribute to his father, Jerry, who once upon a time played bass for Elvis. It's a stirring and shining example of a son's paternal love.

Sleeping In the Middle of the Bed Again, another Lamm penned tune even, at one point, features an attempt at rap. Lamm would later include an alternate and much different arrangement of this song on his 1997 solo release, In My Head. The newer version would lack the infectious groove and the brass punch of the Chicago song.

Mah Jongg, is catchy and laidback with a gentle groove. After being conspicuously absent on the first four tracks, we finally hear Bill Champlin's gritty and soulful vocals. An alternate version of this with Brandon Fields on sax and vocalist Jason Scheff handling vocals ended up on Scheff's obscure solo album, Chauncy a few years later.

Unfortunately, try as they may, Chicago could not completely abandon the insipid or saccharine ballads that had turned their music into prom fodder just ten years earlier. Let's Take a Lifetime is everything long-time fans of this band love to hate about the worst this band has given them over their long tenure.

During the 1993 summer tour, in anticipation of this album's impending release, Chicago performed The Pull. This song has one of the better horn charts I've heard on any of their material in awhile. No longer relegated to the background with the intermittent blats to remind the fans that horns were still part of the band-- as they'd had to resort to in the eighties, the horns remain an integral part of the song from start to finish... Acting almost as another "vocalist" as they had in the band's heyday in the seventies.

While Chicago was not done giving their fans ballads, Candle For the Dark (Here With Me) is much less offensive and considerably less saccharine than Let's Take a Lifetime. It features Robert Lamm, Jason Scheff, and Bill Champlin all taking turns on lead vocals and rather than a synthesized sax solo like in Let's Take a Lifetime the horns actually play throughout the entire song-- if Chicago truly must play the occassional ballad it's nice to see that they remembered to give their horn section something to do, other than just reading the newspaper or "playing" a redundant third or fourth keyboard.

With Twenty-1 Chicago had given the executives at Warner Brothers/Reprise just what they wanted. A rather pedestrian album with a few catchy ballads to be released as singles. That album tanked so bad that only one song from it has ever been performed live. Plaid was Chicago's giant middle fingers to the executives for inflicting the damage of Twenty-1 on the masses. Incidentally, the song probably didn't help convince those same executives to release Stone of Sisyphus.

Proving that Robert Lamm isn't the only one in the band who knows how to write songs with a message, Bill Champlin contributed Cry For the Lost. In 1995 Champlin would release a considerably different version with alternate lyrics titled Proud of Our Blindness on his Through It All solo album. Both versions are interesting, but given Champlin's distinguished grammy-winning songwriting career they are, by comparison, rather forgettable.

In what is probably the most lyrically unusual song in Chicago's canon, Get On This, features hard driving guitars, soaring vocals and lyrics that detail a strange dream. One could almost say that while Robert Lamm stays up until "25 or 6 to 4" trying to write songs, Dawayne Bailey instead waits till morning and tells of the dreams had the night before. Bailey has indicated that many of the lyrics were inspired by the poetry of his then girlfriend, Felicia Parazaider. Trombonist, James Pankow added an assist and the end result is the type of song Chicago had never done before and will, more than likely, never do again.

The album closes with The Show Must Go On an autobiographical song co-penned by Bill Champlin. A very different version of this song with a completely different set of lyrics had appeared on the Fixx album, Ink, a few years before. The Fixx version was titled Falling In Love. Musically, however, it's obvious the two songs were cut from the same cloth.

This is one of the best "could've been" albums to ever sit gathering dust in the vaults. It was certainly better than Chicago's worst material and it was even better than much of the more mediocre half-assed efforts they'd spoonfed fans over the years. If in your Internet travels you stumble across a torrent of this, add it to your download queue. If you miss the Chicago of old, this album will not disappoint. While it has not aged well, it's still aged better than their ill-fated attempts at disco on Chicago XIII and has that brass punch that Chicago SHOULD have had in the eighties when they seemingly forgot they had a horn section.

9 comments:

David Amulet said...

As a fan of the band--perhaps 10% as much as you, but still a fan--I also wish the 80s albums kept a little more flavor of the 70s horn section and driving rhythms.

Then again, I can't of ANY band that has a career of more than 10 or 15 years that doesn't leave fans pining for the "old days." (Pardon the Chicago pun.)

Whether its Genesis, Rush, Aerosmith, you name it ... bands get more pop and less appealing to most diehard fans. Perhaps--and only perhaps--an exception is U2, but even that group hasn't escaped the curse in my eyes.

-- david

Perplexio said...

It's been argued that creatively Chicago just burnt themselves out early on. Their output at the onset of their careers were staggering. Between 1969 and 1972 they release 3 double albums, a quardruple live set, and 1 regular length album. That's over 10 albums worth of material in 5 years. So it's kind of no wonder why the band's later output didn't match the quality of their earlier output.

They didn't leave enough creative juice in the tank to continue at the pace they'd started at.

Even their original producer (for their first 11 albums), James William Guercio, said he felt the band had only ever accomplished about 10% of what he felt they were capable of achieving.

The Phoenix said...

Peter Cetera was both a curse and a blessing to Chicago. With his pop bubble gum love ballad song writing, coupled with his semi-falsetto voice...he helped take Chicago to a mainstream level that many of those band members have to thank for their monetary comfort today.

On the other hand, they sold their soul for the sake of selling records and appeasing their label. It's so sad because there is so much damn talent in this band.

Interestingly, one of my most favorite albums they've released in the last 20 years was their big band inspired release, Night and Day.

To this day, I will play 25 or 6 to 4 when in the car.

Perplexio said...

But in addition to his voice, Cetera was quite an accomplished bass player. I think Chicago V showcases his talents on bass better than any other Chicago album (or maybe it's just that the bass seems to be higher in the mix than it was on other Chicago albums).

I think Peter gets too much of the blame for Chicago's shift to pop. The band made a conscious decision over the years, Pete was just 1 of 7 members. The band could just as easily have steered things down a very different path than the one they went down.

JamesHayes said...

It is interesting how many diverse opinions there are about Chicago -- old versus new. I started listening to them at the age of 14 (in 1974). At the time, the bands that got me going included Bad Company, Robin Trower, Jethro Tull, Lynard Skynard, The Stones... Some people -- who don't know Chicago well -- might say how does Chicago fit into that set? The fact is they did and very easily. Chicago songs (for the most part) were imbued a raw edge, politically inspired lyrics, awesome guitar, heavy base, powerfull brass arrangements and intriguing vocals shared by three entirely different singers. Then something happened... Nevertheless, that something was beggining to happen even before Terry Kath died. It cannot really be blamed on Peter Cetera for writing some insipid ballads, which many point to as Chicago's demise, because he also continued writing some creative, rocking songs as well. No, the blame seems to rest with the producers. They smelled the money with songs like: "If You Leave Me Now" and "Baby What a Big Suprise" and there was no turning back. Unfortunately, Robert Lamn, Peter Cetera, James Pankow and the rest of the band allowed this metamorphosis to occur. And they are probably sick to death of people saying so. So, I'd say: Guys, for something like a decade you made some incredibly inspired music and we all thank you for that. There have even been some moments of brilliance since: Donnie Dacus, elements of Chicago 14 and 17, then the Big Band album. Thanks for these. If you ever decide to release a "Stone of Sisyphus," or something else with similar objectives that you really feel stretches you once again, a lot of people will rediscover your talents. No need to comment further.

Matthew Blumenstein said...

Unreleasable. Right.

Stone Of Sisyphus is downright amazing. Undoubtedly the best album since 17, and quite possibly the best since XI.

Plaid is one of my favorite Chicago songs of all time (and subsequently my current ringtone). The chorus is fantastic, the harmonies on the background "doo way"s are dead-on. But above all, it's got balls! Imboden really shows off his drumming skills while playing the high hat triplets with the straight 4 4 tempo.

All The Years is great, and I love the upbeat guitar line, the title track is phenomenal too, I love Mah Jongg's funky groove, and though it's ridiculous to imagine Chicago doing anything hip hop, they still pull it off pretty well with Sleeping...

Though Bigger Than Elvis may technically be a ballad, it doesn't deserve the title. It's so much better. It's like Subway. It may technically be considered fast food, but it's head and shoulders above the rest. The lyrics can be tear-jerking at times, and the rock turn at the end is great.

Really, the only song I could do without is Let's Take A Lifetime. Why, Chicago? Why soil such a great album?

Despite that Here With Me may fall under the same category, it's far superior to Lifetime. It's more acoustic, rather than wimpy, and the horns are well arranged.

The second half is much less memorable than the first. I can never really figure out The Pull. It's hard to define what I mean. It's not lyrical, it's not genre-al, I just don't get this song. To quote Gypsy of MST3K, "I don't get you!"

Get On This is definitely strange. It's odd to picture Chicago doing something somewhat KISS-esque, but they still pull it off fairly well. They're good at that.

Though it may be short, I love the little saxophone solo on Cry For The Lost, and The Show Must Go On is a perfect, upbeat way to end such a phenomenal album.

I can't wait for Rhino to finally release it.

Tony-Older Chicago fan said...

After years of avoiding Chicago albums for fear of buying another Chicago Twenty-1, I went out and bought this.

The first five songs are great. "Stone" is very good and shows the off the musicianship of the ENTIRE band.

Even though "Bigger than Elvis" is a ballad, it's not horrible and is a tribute to the writer's father.

"All the Years" brings us back to Robert's earlier "anti-establishment" days. Robert - glad to hear you are back !!!!!

The funky grooves of "Mah Jong" and "Sleeping in the Middle" are great. My only complaint is they could have done more with the guitar parts on these, Terry Kath would have downright "funked in those grooves".

"Let's take a Lifetime" is horrible and should not be on any album, much less this more "progressive" one. Guys - scrap this kind of junk and let the creative juices run wild....

"The Pull" has a great horn section and fits well here - even though it does seem to have tendencies toward the commercial side.

While I tended to like older James Pankow tunes ("Searching" and "Feeling Stronger"), "Here with Me" is marginal and too much in the commercial vain.

Now "Plaid".... Great song. It's great to hear Robert writing these types of songs again - it's gritty and it's got balls !!! Terry would have loved it (and he also would have loved "all the years").

"Cry for the Lost" doesn't belong on this album. Too mainstream pop for this (or any future) albums...

"The show must go on" is decent with a nice reggae flavor, but doesn't stack up to the first 5 cuts or "Plaid".

In closing, guys - it's nice to see you rediscovered your creative side. Now you need to build on this, get some more soul influence, get a guitar player with some guts who isn't afraid to let his "kahounas" drag on the floor all over the studio and on stage (like Terry used to).

Overall, it's easily the best album since XI and harkens back to the creative days of VII and before...

In summary: Put more albums out like this one and scrap the putrid high school promish ballads....

Bob Morein said...

JamesHayes says the band went along with the changes, and they are probably sick to death about it.

How absurd!

Chicago 2008 is still playing the same crappy songs night after night, like automatons. They're one of the best "nostalgia" Chicago bands on the circuit.

The fact is that most decisions by this band have always been about making money. They dumped Jim Guercio, who was the real direction of the band, because they had to pay him points. Once they started "doing it themselves" they lost their way. That's the role of the good producer - to steer the band to where they want to go. Think Michael Jackson without Quincy Jones.

The guys that got out were the smart ones - Danny, Peter, and Terry (all the real talent in the band). The horns? Mediocre musicans at best. You never see anyone asking them to "sit in" on their jazz albums, because they are barely able to play. They keep playing lamer and lamer shows and county fairs, only because the alternative is sitting home and doing nothing. Loughnane should have stuffed his horns with flowers years ago for all the lameness of his playing.

Saraphine's "California Transit Authority" is a glimpse into where Chicago SHOULD have gone, and what they COULD be sounding like, if only they weren't so obsessed with $$$$.

roger said...

their 1st 5 albums are beyond fantastic, VII was great at times. i stopped listening cuz i preferred the longer jams w/Kath's incredible solos, which stopped when they became a singles band ...for whatever reason