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Chicago - Chicago VI CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

2.56 | 76 ratings

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3 stars By the time Chicago went into their manager Jim Guercio's brand new, state-of-the-art Caribou Studio to lay down tracks for their next album in the brisk, clean air of Colorado they no longer resembled the scrappy, rebellious underdogs they started out as. Due to repeated ascensions up the charts since their ambitious double-disc debut made substantial waves back in '69 they were able to give themselves some slack, take deep breaths and admire the view from the upper echelons of the rock & roll peaks. On their 4th studio offering they finally yielded to going to the less-demanding single LP format and, since their fans didn't raise any stink about the lower price tag, they wisely stuck with it when settling on the material that was to inhabit Chicago VI. But success brought some unique baggage with it and though the band no longer had to prove worthiness they found themselves in the stressful position of having to maintain a much higher standard than when they were still the new kids in town. Churning out hit singles was essential to keeping them in the ear canals of the radio-addicted general public yet they dared not abandon their progressive and jazz/rock fusion roots in the process because they'd run the risk of being labeled as "sell outs" and losing a large percentage of their followers. This was a dilemma tens of thousands of groups struggling for attention in that era would've given their very souls to have to deal with but nonetheless a dilemma it was. These road-weary musicians/songwriters did the best they could to walk that tightrope and I have no doubt that getting out of the city of angels and into the wide open countryside to create fresh tracks was a change of pace they desperately needed early in 1973.

Another curse that came with mass popularity was that the media's observers and/or commentators of the music scene who once fawned all over you for being novel and innovative now dismissed almost every record you put out as being stale and hackneyed whether your audience liked the contents or not. Chicago was being attacked for these perceived indiscretions mercilessly as were the giants of the biz as diverse as Led Zeppelin and former members of The Beatles. That's just the way the game is played but keyboard man Robert Lamm evidently had stomached all he could from those snobby bozos and the group agreed with his disgust, opting to open this album with a simple vocal/piano piece entitled "Critic's Choice." It's an arresting, slightly jazzy ballad of exasperation in which Robert tries to explain that they're all trying their damndest to maintain their integrity but, realizing the critics would ignore his plea for leniency anyway, he strikes back with snarky lines like "What do you really know/you parasite/you're dynamite/an oversight/misunderstanding what you hear." At least he had the balls to fight back. This album is also significant in that it marks the emergence of trombonist James Pankow as a composer of shorter, more accessible tunes. In the past he'd contributed and arranged several of the multi-layered, involved epics that characterized their early offerings but here, with the love song "Just You 'n' Me," he showed he was cultivating a knack for penning radio-friendly fare that would eventually change the band's image (for better or worse depending on one's point of view). This romantic number takes advantage of bassist Peter Cetera's suave voice and avoids being overly formulaic via the airy instrumental segment that features the swooping soprano sax of Walter Parazaider. After the previous LP only produced one big hit it was a relief to the suits at Columbia to see it rise to #4, further reinforcing the commercial continuity they'd been praying the band would develop.

Lamm's rowdy "Darlin' Dear" owns a funky attitude that's extremely welcome at this juncture and guitarist Terry Kath's rude bottleneck slide keeps things from becoming too slick and polished. Terry's weak "Jenny" doesn't work as well, though. The song's too-busy rhythm track detracts from the groove this ballad desperately needed to even have a chance of being memorable. James' "What's This World Comin' To" sports another funkified feel that revives the sagging momentum in the nick of time. The punchy horn section asserts their strong will often and the whole ensemble displays a lot of cooperative enthusiasm throughout the number. It must've been a good day in the Rockies. Robert's "Something in This City Changes People" is next, a slower-paced tune that highlights their superb harmonizing abilities. The subtle congas, Cetera's expressive bass runs and Walter's delicate flute reaffirm that their persistent leanings toward the jazz realm haven't abated. The burg in question is L.A. and Lamm's critical words about its tendency to make those who live there "devil-eyed" pull no punches. "Hollywood" follows, a fine example of their inimitable style that cleverly combines and blends jazz influences into an acceptable rock motif. The inventive, invigorating horn arrangement is a joy to hear and the lyric of "Crazy neighborhood/never understood why I stay" only reiterates their love/hate relationship with the southern California scene.

Peter was a gifted singer but his songwriting skills sometimes left a lot to be desired as "In Terms of Two" clearly confirms. They and many other bands liked to venture into the iffy world of country rock in those days and this is one of those ill-advised experiments that straddles a spiked fence, failing to please anyone. Poco they were not and should've known better. Da funk monster returns on "Rediscovery" to stop the bleeding and to instantly restore respectability. Kath's wah-wah happy guitar ride is playfully sneaky but Robert's Rhodes piano playing is disappointingly tepid when it should've been exciting. Pankow and Cetera's "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" is the closer, a well-constructed song that emphasizes everything the group intended to be known for. An uplifting theme, unforgettable melody line, unorthodox changes in attack and mood as well as their signature boisterous, dynamic horns are all to be found in this tune. No wonder it was a top ten single and is a staple of classic rock radio to this day. Chicago could accept being either loved or hated but not being ignored.

While I don't consider this to be as sub-par as some seem to think, I do consider it as being only slightly above their average due mainly to the inconsistency in the material. I still rank it a lot higher than much of the questionable schlock they would put out later on and find that, as a whole, Chicago VI continues to make for an enjoyable listen. It occupied the #1 position on the album charts for five weeks so obviously it wasn't a flop and only served to further solidify their status as one of the dominant acts of the wild and wooly 70s decade. On this album Robert Lamm's songs in particular helped to offset their growing tendency to become a hit record machine, keeping them valid as a serious, active contributor to the ever-expanding genre of jazz/rock fusion for a while longer.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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