Box sets come in all shapes & sizes and are often hit or miss. Generally casual listeners aren't inclined to spend the fifty to one hundred (or more) clams to purchase a collection of music they only have a casual interest in. And die-hard fans already have most of the material included on the box sets of their favorite bands (in some cases several times over).
This is Chicago's second crack at a box set. Their first was the early-90s 4 CD Group Portrait released on the Columbia-Legacy label and thus only included material they recorded while on contract with Columbia Records (their debut-Chicago XIV-- material recorded and released between 1969 and 1980). It included a non-LP B-side (Closer to You) and an unreleased track recorded during the Chicago XIV sessions (Doin' Business) and a 52 page booklet written by the AllMusicGuide's William Ruhlmann.
Luckily for Chicago, apparently someone at Columbia Records wasn't paying attention when Chicago's contract was written up. A few years after the Group Portrait box set was released all of the rights to Chicago's Columbia Records catalog reverted to the band (generally record labels aren't quite that generous). After a short and ill-fated attempt at their own record label (Chicago Records), the release rights to Chicago's Columbia era material was sold by Chicago to Rhino Records. Luckily for Rhino Records they are a branch of Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers owned Chicago's latter day catalog (Chicago 16-the then unreleased Stone of Sisyphus album as well as the bonus tracks that had been included in a couple of late 90s compilation CDs).
This chain of events has allowed Rhino to release a considerably more complete box set-- adding a 5th disc and a DVD of rare footage of the band. And therein lies the bait for all of those die-hard fans who already had/have multiple copies of much of the material on the CDs. In addition to material from their studio albums spanning their entire career this set includes Good For Nothing (a song recorded for the We Are the World album), Hearts in Trouble (from the Days of Thunder soundtrack), the 4 bonus tracks from the two Heart of Chicago collections from the late nineties, three tracks from the then ureleased Stone of Sisyphus album (Stone of Sisyphus was finally released in 2008), and a handful of alternate edits and single edits of various songs.
Addition by Subtraction
There are a handful of songs that were included that are real head-scratchers. Other than an abysmally bad performance of You Come to My Senses on the Arsenio Hall show in the early 90s Chicago has never performed any material from their twenty-first album live. So the inclusion of three songs from that album is rather surprising. Another regrettable inclusion is Song For You from Chicago XIV a rather bland and uninspired Cetera ballad. Overnight Cafe or Hold On would have been superior selections to represent XIV, one of Chicago's weakest albums.
Chicago X suffered from a "too many hands in the cookie jar" (and the white stuff in the "cookies" at that point in time wasn't sugar, if you get my drift) yet there were SIX songs from that album included in this set... and despite including six songs from Chicago X, they still managed to leave off the two best tracks from that album-- Once or Twice and Scrapbook!
Initially, it was surprising that the 2 non-LP tracks that had been included in the Group Portrait (Doin' Business and Closer to You) had been left off this set, however Rhino included those songs as bonus tracks on their re-releases of Chicago XIV and XIII respectively.
However, what is glaringly absent from this collection are any live tracks from either the Live at Carnegie Hall or Live in Japan albums. A live track or two from each would have been welcome additions as both albums feature some truly scorching Terry Kath guitar solos.
Terry Kath's haunting tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Oh Thank You Great Spirit from Chicago VIII would also have been a nice fit. The Robert Lamm penned When Will the World Be Like Lovers which was recorded for Chicago 18 but was cut in favor of the Jason Scheff penned Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now would also have been a welcome addition to this set.
When Chicago VII was being recorded the band couldn't decide between a pop/rock album or a more experimental jazz-influenced album. So they compromised and released it as a double album-- one LP of more pop-friendly mainstream material and one LP of more experimental jazz influenced material. While this set does include a handful of tracks from the more pop-friendly LP, it's conspicuously lacking any material from the more jazz-oriented LP (much to this listener's chagrin).
The collection could have been tremendously improved by dropping two songs each from XIV, Twenty-1, and X and including some of the stronger material from some of their other albums (In The Country from II, Sing a Mean Tune Kid and Happy Cause I'm Goin' Home from III, and Prelude to Aire & Aire from VII for example).
Rhino deserves credit where it's due and they did include some excellent pieces from the Columbia era that were conspicuously absent from the Group Portrait. Chicago's anti-Vietnam epic-- It Better End Soon, Terry Kath's ode to breakfast food and self-love-- An Hour In the Shower, and the aforementioned Good For Nothing and Hearts in Trouble are all quite welcome inclusions.
The DVD is a nice addition for both hardcore fans and the more casual listeners. The concert footage from Arie Crown Theater shows the band when they were still creative and adventurous with a bit of fire and youthful enthusiasm. It features Devil's Sweet, one of the aforementioned more jazz-tinged pieces from Chicago VII, as well as Now That You've Gone, Dialogue & Saturday In the Park from Chicago V.
The promo footage for Chicago XIII is an amusing addition for the more die-hard fans. But considering how laughably bad that album is (another instance of too many hands in the cookie jar and too much of the "other" white powder in those cookies) this footage is more of a novelty and will likely not generate enough interest to warrant repeated viewings even by the most die-hard of fans.
One wonders what the rationale and/or motivation was behind some of the song selections for this collection. Some of the material is quite strong, but a lot of weaker material also made it onto this collection. Was the song selection based more on personal preferences of the members of the band and the staff at Rhino who compiled the box, on the perceived preferences of the target demographic, or on which collection of songs would generate the most songwriting royalties to the various members of the band?
Regardless of the motivations behind the song selections, in all fairness to those making such decisions it must be conceded that you can't please everyone. With that in mind, this box set was a valiant effort at accomplishing just that-- even if it did come up short for some fans it likely succeded in spades for others.
If you're new to Chicago with a thirst for deeper than all of the "greatest hits" and "best of" compilations and have the disposable income to do so-- purchasing this set is a considerably more economical way to get a broader view of Chicago than purchasing their entire back catalog. It offers a considerably deeper and more comprehensive snapshot of the band's history than any of the 1 or 2 disc compilations offered to date. If however you're merely a casual listener just interested in the hits, stick with the 2CD Only the Beginning: The Very Best of Chicago set.
Chicago "The Box" (Rhino Records)
Chicago "The Box" (Amazon.com)
Chicago "The Box" (Wikipedia)
Chicago (Official Website)
Chicago Music & More (Chicago Message Board)
Other Chicago related reviews, interviews, & etc.