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2 stars Three Dog Night was a label-manufactured, pop rock group featuring a trio of talented vocalists that thrived from the late 60s to the mid 70s, not on their songwriting ability, but on their knack for finding and covering tunes written by the likes of Laura Nyro, Harry Nilsson, and Paul Williams and turning them into huge Top 40 hits. While they were wildly successful with the LP-buying/concert-going public, the fact that they rarely recorded any of their original compositions made them, deservedly or otherwise, a sort of joke among serious musicians. Tragically, the once highly creative and innovative band known as Chicago had slowly but surely become Three Dog Night's quasi-equivalent in the late 80s and never so much as on this, their 17th studio release. They may not have turned into a laughing stock, exactly, but the esteem and respect that they'd earned over the decades had certainly deteriorated drastically. They'd sold out.

Let me say emphatically that while I concede that this album has a modicum of merit and is not a total disgrace, there's absolutely not a smidgen of progressive rock to be found. "So why do you own it?" you may ask and rightfully so. Well, first of all by 1988 the ruthless MTV virus had exterminated prog in the USA and slick, 3-4 minute songs were all anyone was being exposed to. Secondly, I, like many disillusioned baby boomers, was slogging through a gut-wrenching divorce in those days and several of the tunes included here spoke directly to many of the emotions I was harboring at the time. For better or for worse, music has always been my pacifier, especially in moments of extreme mental anguish, and for that reason alone I latched on to this album. To this day I have a soft spot in my head and heart for it. I won't apologize.

"Heart in Pieces" (Think I could relate?) opens things up and it's a continuation of the large- scale production mindset that made their previous LP such a guilty pleasure for me. It's got Danny Seraphine's programmed drums, harmony vocals stacked up to the stratosphere and a Technicolor wall-of-sound approach as rich and fattening as Bananas Foster. The formerly prominent horn section of Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walt Parazaider has been blended in to the ocean of synthesizers to the point where they're hardly distinguishable and, in their stead, a metallic electric guitar has become the focus. This is weird because they didn't even have a full-time guitarist on the roster! Yet 70% of the tracks have an in-your-face guitar solo, indicating that they no longer cared to be identified with the clean brassy sound that had made them a unique force to be reckoned with. Producer Chas Sandford and some session cat named Dan Huff are listed as the axe wielders so take your pick as to who plays what and when. They sound the same.

No longer relying on their own ability to pen chart-topping singles, the group turned to folks like Diane Warren (the 80s and 90s phenomenon who was churning out radio-friendly staples in her sleep for AOR artists like Cher and Celine Dion) for sellable, commercial material. Fueled by the inimitable voice of Bill Champlin and a ton of cavernous depth, her "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" did its job and rose to #3 on the Billboard hot 100. It's a power ballad for the desperately heartbroken who can't seem to get over the "girl who got away" from their past and pathetically cry into their Budweiser along with the lyrics that they "don't wanna love nobody else." It's cheesier than a Green Bay Packer fan, to be sure, but effective in some twisted way nonetheless. Keyboard dude Robert Lamm's sole contribution is next, "I Stand Up," a dance number reminiscent of old school Chicago mixed in with more than a trace of the lame white boy funk that was so popular at the time. A rare yet aggressive horn arrangement is the only thing worth mentioning.

"We Can Last Forever" suffers mightily from the deadly Peter Cetera syndrome that turned the band into mush masters in that it's a syrupy, formulaic love song that makes your stomach queasy. An overkill of lush keyboards and loads of nerdy "I love you big time" poetry, as expected. Mr. Champlin has come up with some fantastic tunes in his career but the dull-as-a-butter-knife "Come in from the Night" isn't one of them. It's semi-hard rock on the verses, glossy R&B on the choruses and has filler fodder scribbled all over it. Diane Warren's "Look Away" gave the windy city men another coveted #1 hit and it's hard to argue with her craft when she gets those kinds of results on a regular basis. Bill's voice is passionate and soulful but the complete absence of any horns at all is disturbing. This could've been recorded by anybody. Of course, the lyrics about a sad sack ruing the day he let his dream woman walk out his door were perfectly aligned with my dour mood and I cranked up the volume every time it came on. I confess. What a sap I was.

Jason Scheff, the designated crooner-in-residence since replacing pretty boy Cetera, took the fans' comparisons to Peter way too literally as his schmaltzy "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" reveals all too clearly. At least there's a brief horn section interlude in the middle instead of another "rawk" guitar ride. The aptly-titled "Runaround" has a driving beat but it's so plain Jane vanilla that you forget the tune even before it's finished. Champlin's golden tones grace the step-away-from-the-ledge-and-get-over-yourself ditty, "You're Not Alone," but once again there's not a horn to be heard. It climbed to #10, though, so hopefully it stopped someone from swan diving off the Sears Tower and injuring an innocent pedestrian. Hope springs eternal. Finally, Lamm sings "Victorious" to bring up the rear and despite the unexplainable drums-in-a-well effect, at least it doesn't sound like anything else that preceded it. It's more like something you'd hear from a band like Toto, actually, and one gets the feeling that they had no idea what to do with this queer duck except to tack it on the end.

So what have we learned about Chi 19? Hopefully that, unless you're a die-hard Chicago fanatic, you don't want to touch this album with a ten-foot pole. Production-wise, it sounds excellent but you can say that about most of their stuff, anyway. It simply is what it is, lite rock fare from front to back. In '88 I used it as a sympathetic shoulder to weep upon because of my awful circumstances as that demoralizing decade came to a close but nowadays it's about as useful as an old, moth-eaten wedding tuxedo that doesn't fit anymore. But if you're ever experiencing a bout of "she stomped on my heart and smushed that sucker flat" depression then this might be a good friend to hang out with. 1.6 stars.

Report this review (#255768)
Posted Saturday, December 12, 2009 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
3 stars Ditching the drummer

Having recorded three albums produced by David Foster, Chicago decided it was once again time for a change. Foster had been a major reason for the band's renewed success in terms of both singles and chart appearances, although "Chicago 18" had not sold nearly as many copies as its immediate predecessors. Foster's rigid hands on approach though was probably the major reason for the split, the band wanting to diversify their sound even further. Producers Ron Nevison and Chas Sanford came in as replacements (Nevison produces four tracks, Sandford six). New boy Jason Scheff recruited his former band mate Dawayne Bailey to the line up to add further lead guitar.

Significantly, the band further removed themselves from song-writing duties, relying on hired hands such as Diane Warren and Albert Hammond to provide the material. This can be seen as a clear effort to secure further commercial (i.e. singles) success, and to turn away even further from their roots. For this album, Bill Champlin stepped up as lead singer on the songs selected as singles, the brass section being once again relegated to minor or non-existent supporting roles. In terms of the music, there are no surprises here, the album is very much a case of "Chicago 18, part 2".

The opening "Heart in pieces" is a Starship like pop rock song with a heavy back beat and a catchy but uninspired hook. Totally predictably, this upbeat opener is followed by a ballad, Diane Warren and Albert Hammond's "I don't wanna live without your love" being a classy song of course. The presentation here is actually high quality too with a nice anthemic chorus, but Chicago it just ain't. Dawayne Bailey is immediately afforded centre stage on lead guitar, the brass section offering only a token input. Robert Lamm's "I stand up" does offer the brass section an opportunity to come to the fore a bit more, but the prosaic funky nature of the song and the switch to lead guitar for the main solo wastes the opportunity.

Jason Scheff does a fine impersonation of Peter Cetera on the multi-tracked ballad "We can last forever", but the public were not duped and the song failed to break into the Billboard top 50. "Come in from the night" is another bland AOR number, with strong hints of Journey. Diane Warren's second composition here is "Look away" which took Chicago back to the top of the US singles chart for a final time. Bill Champlin makes a decent job of the vocals, but his unfamiliar voice and the lack of horns throughout make this one of the least Chicago like songs ever.

"What kind of man would I be" sung by Jason Scheff was not released as a single from this album. It was however slightly remixed for the "Greatest Hits" collection which followed this release ("Chicago 20") and then put out in single format. It would prove to be the last single by the band to make the top 10 in the US. The song itself is safe and chart focused. Bill Champlain's "Runaround" continues the alternating upbeat followed by ballad structure of the album.

"You're not alone" written by Jim Scott is very Foreigner like, the repeated chorus being well composed pop. The album closes with its longest track, "Victorious" running to around 6 minutes. While slightly more interesting in terms of arrangement, the song is a bit of a dirge.

The overwhelming focus on commercialism throughout this album render it of little interest to prog fans, and indeed to traditional fans of Chicago. I have to confess though that seen for what it is, this is a very enjoyable album. The strong melodies, well composed songs, and proficient musicianship may seem a little wasted, the phrase "underachieving" comes to mind, but in terms of pure entertainment "Chicago 19" is well worth a listen.

This would be founding member drummer Danny Seraphine's last album with the band. He was fired during a UK tour, the other band members citing a lack of commitment to the tour from him. Seraphine believed the real reason was that the newer members of the band resented the amount of say he had within the band.

Report this review (#392690)
Posted Wednesday, February 2, 2011 | Review Permalink

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