[11 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I’ve been a fan of the band Chicago for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I would endlessly replay the band’s early single, which my dad had as a seven inch, “25 or 6 to 4”. I scratched up that seven-inch pretty badly, I loved playing that song so much. Around this time, my aunt was a member of a high school concert band, and they cut an album. Guess what was on it? Yep, an instrumental version of “25 or 6 to 4”. I scratched that record up pretty badly, too, to the point of it being now virtually unplayable.
So, yes, I’m unapologetic in my love of Chicago, and, as an adult, I’ve collected a great deal of their material on vinyl. I have every album from their 1969 debut right up to Chicago 17, save for Chicago 13, which I’m kind of avoiding as I hear that it’s their disco album. Regardless of what you may think of Chicago, specifically its string of soft rock hits from the mid-‘70s and ‘80s, Chicago actually started out as a pretty progressive band. It was one of the first to use horns in rock music, and that debut album has a six-minute free form guitar solo that will pretty much peel the paint off your walls. So you can laugh all you want. I love Chicago. Even, and especially, the schmaltzy stuff, usually from the early ‘80s, even if that meant that the brass part of the band was often busy polishing its instruments while keyboards and electric soft rock guitars took over.
And the band has been at it a long time, as it is now releasing its 36th album. It’s either a commendation or a criticism to say that there’s not an awful lot that sounds fresh and new here. In fact, when the first song, “Now”, started playing, the disco ball descended from the ceiling and my heart and stomach kind of sank. Basically, “Now”, and much of the rest of the album, sounds as though it could have been recorded during the band’s early ‘80s heyday, except that the horns are now generally back at full force. Essentially, listening to Now (Chicago XXXVI) (some sources credit it as Chicago XXXVI: NOW)—and you gotta love those impressive Roman numerals—is like hearing a band trying to out-Steely Dan Steely Dan. This is jazzy soft rock to the nth degree, or “mom rock”, if you will. That means that your enjoyment of this record is pretty much going to hinge on the notion that you’re already a fan. (And if you’re not a fan, but are curious, my recommendation to you would be to start where I did and pick up Chicago’s first greatest hits collection, which would be Chicago IX.)
One of the things that’s striking about Chicago is that, aside from Peter Cetera and, back in the good ol’ days, legendary guitarist Terry Kath (RIP), the band is known as a team, and while some of the original band members are still hanging around (Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider, etc.), Chicago is about as anonymous a group as they come. This anonymity works to create a perfect concoction of rock and jazz. Some may say it’s bland, and some may be enthralled by it. But this album has crystalline sound, which only proves that the outfit has learned its lessons well in its more than 45 years of existence.
To wit, the band has complained that the horns sounded like kazoos on the monumental, four-disc live album, Chicago at Carnegie Hall. And despite the fact that most of the members of Chicago have to be pushing 70, the hippy-dippy idealism of the late ‘60s still remains in the group’s music. In particular, the annoyingly saccharine and flag-waving patriotism of “America” has hopeful idealism that the country’s woes can be turned around by the common person. And, yes, the band still knows how to write touching ballads, such as “Love Lives On”, which, had it come out 30 years ago, might have become a staple at weddings in the same way that “You’re the Inspiration” has.
However, Chicago does prove that it has a few tricks still left up its collective sleeve. The album’s final two songs, “Naked in the Garden of Allah” and “Another Trippy Day” are the strongest on the collection. “Naked”, in particular, features a Middle Eastern theme and psychedelic backwards vocals, along with a smattering of electronics. This might be the closest thing that Chicago comes to making trance, and it works well because it sounds so fresh and exciting. And “Another Trippy Day” is just an infectiously funky and upbeat number, which, again, sounds a lot like Steely Dan, just without the sarcastic lyrics. Still, no matter what the album’s strengths are, it’s peppered with a fair amount of filler. “Nice Girl”? Silly. “Free at Last”? Sounds like a holdover from the band’s ‘70s output. “Something’s Coming, I Know”? Doesn’t leave a mark.
Basically, Now (Chicago XXXVI) is essentially interchangeable with just about any record from the band’s mid-period, just without the very overt soft rock copping (read: rock guitar and synths) that would generate it radio play. Despite that, I suppose if you’re a fan, such as I am, you gotta be happy that the band is still releasing new material. You would never know that this record was actually constructed while on tour with a mobile rig, in which each band member’s parts were recorded in the likes of hotel rooms between concerts. No matter its faults, and there are quite a few, Now (Chicago XXXVI) will likely make moms across the land swoon, and that’s pretty much all you can ask from Chicago by this point. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m going to see if I can dig up a copy of “25 or 6 to 4” and listen to that again.