Like many fans of Chicago, I have awaited a new album from them for fifteen years. Now that my initial excitement over brand new material has abated somewhat, let’s take an extended look at the new album.
Color my world very happy. Even after twelve listens, I really like this album a lot. Chicago XXX is the thirtieth album from one of the oldest rock acts still playing on the concert circuit. (The XXX is Roman numerals for thirty, of course. You pervert.)
My first gripe is that the album was not immediately available from the iTunes Music Store like the February 14 preview single was. (It wasn’t available at 5am, I mean, before I headed off for work and a road trip to Connecticut; the single was available that early on the day of its release.) It is there now, so I have no idea what the issue was.
Chicago performs for a schizoid fan base: Some love the band from Chicago Transit Authority until some point when the band “sold out,” anywhere from Chicago II until the present. The other faction loves what I like to call “eighties Chicago”: big, sappy Adult Contemporary songs with a choir of Peter Cetera clones (or Jason Scheff clones) singing all the vocals. I’m a fan who loves the entirety of their catalog. This puts me in the borderlands between the two, but mostly with the former crowd.
When I first arrived at college, I was standing in a registration line and struck up a conversation with a girl about Chicago. “Oh!” she squeeled, “I love Chicago!” I excitedly expressed that I, too, was a Chicago fan, and asked if she had their latest (which was 1991’s Twenty1). She said that she did. Eventually, the conversation revealed that she only liked two songs on the album. Being a songwriter, I already knew which ones: “Explain It to My Heart” and “Chasin’ the Wind,” both penned by Diane Warren. I didn’t have the heart to correct her; people who love Chicago solely because of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration” don’t understand why “Mongonucleosis” is a perennial concert favorite.
This album is directed in both directions. In fact, it is nearly split in half. The first half is mostly ballads. “Caroline” is not, but it is, like the other songs up to and including “Long Lost Friend,” meant for Adult Contemporary listeners who love Celine Dion, as well as “You’re the Inspiration.”
The album begins with a “Hot Single Mix” of their initial single, “Feel.” This is distinguished from a mix labelled “(With Horns)” that closes the album. (The horn-embellished version was sold via the iTunes Music Store beginning February 14.) The horn section is a major distinction for Chicago, so I disagree with mixes that omit or subdue the horns solely for the sake of getting more airplay. I’m not sure it’s worth it. That said, I think this mix works, primarily because it’s too big already; removing the horns allowed me to hear some subtleties that the more overwrought mix drowned.
“King of Might Have Been” reminds me very much of “Hard Habit to Break” because of its chord changes and its chiaroscuro juxtapositioning of mellow piano/voice combos with big guitar/horn sections.
Personally, big ballads don’t do it for me anymore, and I was hoping that Chicago would feel the same. With concert performances of “What Kind of Man Would I Be” where Jason Scheff plays piano while James Pankow smokes a muted trombone solo or of “Look Away” where Bill Champlin and Keith Howland play two acoustic guitars, the band has proved that they can pull off powerful, subdued arrangements. The ballads on this album disappoint precisely because they’re too big. Luckily, each one gives some little nugget that can be appreciated
“Why Can’t We” showcases a duet between Bill Champlin and rookie country singer Shelly Fairchild. In spite of the big production, I really like this song. Bill Champlin was once hailed as Chicago’s “secret weapon,” a blue-eyed soul that usually catches most people by surprise (unless they’re Chicago or Champlin fans). Fairchild is likewise a blue-eyed soul vocalist, and so their performance together is a perfect match. Look to see single mixes of this with steel guitars for play in Country markets.
After “Long Lost Friend,” which has a very nice coda, I was beginning to despair and fear that perhaps every song would be like the previous six. “90 Degrees and Freezing” put that fear on ice for three and a half minutes. With a groove that verges on ethnic, it recalls the early days when Chicago experimented with diverse styles, including cacophony and dissonance. The interlude, strongly influenced by Latin music, is deft and smooth, the product of thirty-eight years of performance.
Next, “Where Were You” opens with a smooth choir of Scheff + Scheff + Scheff ad infinitum, and initially I thought we were back to ballads. But then a syncopated, 4/4 rock rhythm with a solid horn riff over the top made my heart jump.
In fact, the second half of the album comes as close to capturing the high-energy of a Chicago concert as any studio project I’ve seen. Producer Jay DeMarcus (from country group Rascal Flatts) could finally be a successor to James William Guercio, Chicago’s original producer. DeMarcus seems to get Chicago, or at least Chicago fans, and so it comes as no surprise that he’s always been a fan.
Chicago XXX has the potential to be a come-back album on the level of Chicago 16. Though I disparage the first half of the album, my comments should not be taken to mean I don’t like these songs. In fact, in every song I’ve been able to find something that I like, whether it’s an amazing sequence of harmonic changes or a subtle coda. And after twelve listens, they’ve definitely grown on me. While the first half will suffer the skip button over the course of my life, everything from “90 Degrees” to “Better” will be played over and over again. The second half captures everything I’ve always hoped a new Chicago album could be: faithful and inventive.
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