Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Chicago - XXX (2006)

This isn't your parents' Chicago, and while this album may sound it, upon looking at the calendar this is 2006, not 1992. On first listen I was underwhelmed.. perhaps even disappointed. But this album is a grower-- it may not grab you on first listen, but you'll reap the rewards on future listens.

In 1991 Chicago released Twenty-1 their last album of completely new and original material. In the years since they've released Night & Day, an album of "Chicago-ized" arrangements of Big Band classics like In the Mood and Take the "A" Train, a Christmas album, and an abysmal live album (XXVI) that was so vapid and doctored that it sounded more like a studio album with canned applause.

This album picks up where Twenty-1 left off and kicks it up a notch. If your teeth cut their first cavities on Chicago's sugary power ballads of the eighties you (and, incidentally, your dentist) will delight in the early offerings of Chicago XXX.

The album opens with the recently released single Feel. The biggest surprise about Feel is that it's a Robert Lamm sung single. The last time Chicago released a single featuring Lamm's lead vocals Terry Kath was still alive and Peter Cetera was still in the band. Lamm's voice has deepened and thickened a bit with age. And while it doesn't have quite the same raspy punch that it did on songs such as Skinny Boy it's still quite pleasant to listen to.

The King of Might Have Been is the first in a series of saccharine ballads (Caroline, Why Can't We, Love Will Come Back, and Long Lost Friend). And speaking of friends, producer Jay DeMarcus called in his pals from his band, Rascal Flatts and his country contemporary Shelly Fairchild to lend a few assists. Some other interesting assists come from Toto alum, Joseph Williams contributing background vocals to King of Might Have Been and current Toto vocalist, Bobby Kimball contributing some background vocals to Caroline.

A live version of Caroline leaked out to fans last fall and that version was nails on a blackboard-- there was plenty of room for improvement and the studio version is infinitely better than the obnoxiously cloying live version which was making the rounds prior to the album release.

Why Can't We is a duet featuring Chicago's Bill Champlin and country vocalist Shelly Fairchild (apparently Chicago has been taking notes from their expatriate bandmate Peter Cetera who has had some luck with duets since leaving Chicago). The duet is pleasant enough and it does have something that many of Chicago's popular ballads of the eighties lacked-- HORNS!

Not to be outdone by the vocal stylings of Bill Champlin and Shelly Fairchild, Jason Scheff and Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus, and Joe Don Rooney offer a ballad of their own with Love Will Come Back.

After the rather bland Long Lost Friend luckily, the final foray this album offers into the world of power ballads, the band seemingly grows a pair. The album picks up significantly on 90 Degrees and Freezing. It has a rather catchy (albeit repetitive) guitar riff. And unlike much of Chicago's uptempo material of the eighties, where the horns were hidden in the back of the mix, the horns are mixed a bit more in front and are much more a focal point on 90 Degrees and Freezing.

Where Were You has rather bland lyrics, but the lyrics are forgivable due to the vocals of Bill Champlin (who could sing the phone book and make it sound magical) on the verses and the soaring tenor of Jason Scheff on the choruses. The horn chart is also quite infectious and offers an excellent balance and counterpoint to the vocals.

Already Gone, Lovin' Chains, and Better all sound as if they could just as easily have been recorded by the Sons of Champlin. All 3 of the tracks are quite reminiscent of the material on SOC's 2005 Hip Li'l Dreams album, although the horn charts are distinctly Chicago. It's the vocal arrangements, and the mere presence of horns (although SOC's horn section does have a different style than Chicago's) that gives Already Gone that SOC feel. The song is augmented by a brief muted trumpet and brief flute solo (all too brief, but certainly something the band can extrapolate on if they ever add this song to their live sets).

Come to Me, Do is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs on the CD. And with the lyric "I will refresh you" I could easily hear Coca-Cola using this song in their commercials. It's easily one of Robert Lamm's better vocal contributions to Chicago in the post Peter Cetera era.

The album closes as it opens, with the song Feel, the closing version has reinserted the brass punch which was left out of the single version. Both versions have their strong points. The brass-less version, may lack the horns, but the lack of horns allows the listener to focus on Lamm's strong vocals. At the same time there's nothing about the single version that really distinguishes it-- any other band could just as easily have recorded it. The horn mix gives the song that distinctive "this is Chicago" stamp which sets this band apart from their contemporaries.

While this album lacks the musical adventurousness of Chicago's seventies material, it is far more faithful to the "Chicago sound" than Chicago's handful of late eighties and early nineties albums which often had songs which lacked horns or had horns pushed so far to the back of the mix you'd easily miss them if you weren't listening closely enough. That being said, this is easily Chicago's strongest material since the departure of Peter Cetera in 1985.

6 comments:

Ben Heller said...

They should take a lot of credit for getting to 30. That's some going. I only have a couple of their albums from the 70's.

David Amulet said...

A solid review. I hear what you're saying abotu a return to horns, which is nice, but I'm very disappointed to hear that about half the tracks remain pure schlock.

Like many folks, I hoped beyond hope for a true return to the early albums, but I guess that's not really possible. Sigh.

-- david

Perplexio said...

Ben - As a lifelong fan of them, I'll say this isn't one of their best. There was a definite decline in quality of the band's music after the death of guitarist Terry Kath and the firing of their producer/manager James William Guercio who had produced their first 11 albums. He was able to work magic with them. There are a couple of "good" albums that were released after Guercio's firing (Hot Streets, 16, and the unreleased Stone of Sisyphus album come to mind) but none that quite matched the quality of the first 11 albums.

David: One of the other fans on the Chicago message boards suggested not looking at Chicago XXX as a new album but as a pair of EPs. One really bad schlocky saccharine EP and one considerably better rocking EP. Tracks 7-13 show occassional flashes of the band's brilliance but nothing on the album matches the quality of the unreleased Stone of Sisyphus album from 1994.

dragonflyfilly said...

are you sure it's "wealth and taste"??? i thought it was something else...(something more sinister if my memory serves me correctly)...well never mind...

ref> Hotel Checkout - what if you gain more than you have $$$$, then you CAN'T check out, maybe??

Perplexio said...

ben: In their first 5 years they released the equivalent of 10 albums. That material was easily their best. Some say they "blew their load" creatively by putting out so much great material in such a short period of time.

david: Thanks for the props. It did not match their unreleased SOS album.

dragonflyfilly: Thank you for stopping by! I'm always happy to see new faces/names on here. :-)

BobbyG said...

I've always dug Chicago, but Bill Champlin is THE MAN! See today's post (7/24/06).

http://santafeandthefatcityhorns.blogspot.com/
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