Monday, March 27, 2006

In my last post, an exhaustive [or exhausting?] look at the recording career of the rock group Chicago, I promised my own review of the group's first album of original songs since 1991. Since then, several reviews have sprung up, including a scathing thumbs down from, and mixed home-grown reviews on the Amazon site. Not to be outdone, here's my take.

Chicago has gone through several incarnations. The bad news is that XXX is a resumption of the last incarnation, continuing the sad trend toward sappy power ballads exemplified in Twenty-One [1991]. This latest collection, eleven years after their last album of new music [Chicago Night and Day Big Band] and fifteen years after their last record of original tunes [Twenty-One] includes forgettable ballad-like songs as four out of the first seven selections. Clearly growing out of Bassist Jason Scheff's strong influence on this record, these songs are for the most part a waste of space. Not only do the lyrics noy SAY much of anything, the music [which is my emphasis] is routine, ordinary, and frankly blah.

The good news is that the remaining songs, "Caroline," "Ninety Degrees and Freezing," "Already Gone," "Come to Me, Do," "Lovin' Chains," and "Better" are, after repeated listenings, not bad at all. As Tolkien said, "This tale grew in the telling...." And so it is with at least some of Chicago XXX.

"Ninety Degrees" is probably the strongest proto-Chicago song, co-written by Robert Lamm, in previous incarnations the band's most prolific and interesting songwriter. "Already Gone," penned by Bill Champlin and George Hawkins [previously from Kenny Loggins' band in the 80s?] combines an at-first annoying and then interesting guitar/bass riff with a seemingly atonal vocal that resolves into a satisfying tongue-in-cheek chorus. Lamm's "Come to Me, Do" is bouncy and catchy, if not particularly lyrically deep. Here's a sentiment I agree with:

On the other hand, Robert Lamm lets his age and experience serve him well. His smooth, jazzy baritone is deeper and rougher around the edges, but he works these new bits of character in his favor on "Come to Me, Do", the record's simplest and most immediately appealing number - and also, unfortunately, Lamm's only solo composition here. The song has an uncommon warmth that suggests that Chicago need not do so much blatant pandering to the next generation to preserve their beloved institution. Maybe, if they, y'know, just played music, it would all work out.

"Lovin' Chains," written by Rascal Flatts' [and album producer] Jay DeMarcus, has a wickedly infectious set of chord changes that makes one wait impatiently for the chorus.

James Pankow's horn charts are fun to listen to, even if sometimes predictable. At times, the horn riff one hears is a bit too reminiscent of lines from past songs. Also, an annoying tendency of the Chicago horn sound in the last twenty years is to emphasize the brass element of the section, at the expense of Walt Parazaider's woodwinds in the middle. The horn solo on "Come to Me, Do" is the only ensemble solo on the record where Parazaider's sax can be heard, doubling Lee Loughnane's trumpet.

The musicianship is fine, as far as it goes. These guys are all professionals, and the record is put together reasonably well, from the point of view of the playing of the songs. But that limited accolade misses the point. What haas been lacking in Chicago's music for decades is the sense of grit, creativity, of simple balls to the wall playing. With Chicago's orignal incarnation, it was obvious that the whole exceeded the sum of the parts. One does not get that impression here. it is a meticulously assembled album, but not a cohesive sound that makes the listener sit up and take notice.

As usual for Chicago efforts since 1982, the album is woefully over-produced. Jay DeMarcus, one-third of country's Rascal Flatts, had the chance to put these guys in a room and let them play; he missed the boat with his overdone vocal arrangements and sterile overall feel. A lot of the reason for this perceived sterility is the continuing lack of a strong guitar presence on record. Keith Howland, Chicago's guitraist for over ten years, is a fine player, but he never gets the chance to blow out his amp. And that's what this band needs, maybe more than anything.

Other reviews have bemoaned the return to 80s power ballad formula music, and have ridiculed this group's failure to artistically stretch at a point in their career when they can afford to do it. They're right, to a point. The Chicago of 2006 is nothing close to the group that recorded "Mississippi Delta City Blues" in 1977, either technically [two of the three lead singers adre different], or musically [the lack of a rock guitar presence stunts the record from the start].

But, taking this record for what it is, it's an okay piece of work. It's good for maybe two and a half stars out of five. For those of us starved for Chicago music, it has to do, because that's all we've got. But, given that the band had a decade and a half to put its best material together, XXX has to be considered an overall disappointment. Hearing the unreleased Stone of Sisyphus and Lamm's Subtlety and Passion leads me to believe that these guys can do better.

The original Chicago members are either approaching or into their 60s now. If they have anything left to say, and I believe they do, it's time for them to take the risks that defined them as a young band breaking all the rules, and create music that they -- and the world -- would be unreservedly proud of. While Chicago XXX has some decent tuneage, it is not in any sense of the word the groundbreaking work that Chicago ought to be striving for.