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Chicago - Chicago [Aka: Chicago  II] CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.14 | 197 ratings

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4 stars As a prog-headed tadpole, when I set out on my own and moved into an efficiency apartment adjacent to the campus of North Texas State University late in the summer of '70, this was one of the first albums I bought for my new pad. The college had (and still has) a well-deserved reputation for being the finest jazz school in all of the southwestern United States and every kind of music from classical to heavy rock & roll could be heard emanating from every house and bungalow for blocks constantly. It was a music-lover's heaven. I can't imagine a better place to abide in at the tender, legal age of 21 than the pleasant burg of Denton. The songs on this album will always summon warm nostalgia and memories for me because of its being one of the more popular LPs that blossomed in that particular space and place in time. Plus, it's just a damn good record.

The band known as Chicago was a bright beacon of hope for every scrawny nerd who'd been shut out of the popular high school cliques for being in the marching band. The Joes in this group were as faceless as those outcasts were themselves and yet they stood atop the rock charts just as often as the cool guitar gods did. Around an institution like NTSU, a virtual Mecca for woodwind and brass instrumentalists, Chicago proved that those of their ilk could rock as hard as the hot dogs, producing inventive sounds both respectful of their big band heritage and as progressive as Yes or ELP. For once the only thing that mattered was the music, not what they looked like, and every horn-toting, 4-eyed geek in town could walk with their head held a little higher because in this case substance had found a way to beat media-fueled perception and hype. These guys may have been everymen but they were still special.

While Chicago Transit Authority's debut was no doubt a triumph, it merely reflected their nightclub and early concert act to a large extent. On "Chicago" we got to hear what they could do now that they were granted a little more time in the studio and allowed to concentrate on their writing skills, starting with James Pankow's R&B/Gospel- tinged "Moving In" featuring Terry Kath's husky, soulful voice. Like most tunes on this album, though, just when you think they're going to play it safe they surprise you. In this case they detour into a big band swing-fest where saxophonist Walter Parazaider delivers a delightfully wild solo in particular. Kath's "The Road" is next, a jazzy Laura Nyro-ish ditty with interesting accents abounding and a brash I'm-only-in-town-for-a-night-so-let's- dispose-with-the-formalities-and-get-naked lyrical content. Believe me, in the "love the one you're with" era that preceded the fun-killing advent of really nasty STDs, that sentiment wasn't as reckless as it would seem today. Keyboardist Robert Lamm's "Poem for the People" has a nice piano and horn section intro before it turns into a prime example of Caucasian soul. This number has great jazz moments peppered throughout, including Terry's subtle but flashy guitar lines.

Kath's "In The Country" contains a palpable Sly Stone vibe and continues their habit of not being what you think it'll be as it evolves. Chicago was always game to throw in a few twists and turns along the way. The first dip in the road comes in the form of Lamm's "Wake Up Sunshine," a perky pop song that'd be right at home in an orange juice commercial. To their credit, however, they tag on a proggy ending that's totally unexpected. The suite that follows is hard to over-praise. Pankow's epic "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" is as relevant today as it was over four decades ago. It's got class out the wazoo, beginning with the exquisite and very unlike-anything-else-at-the-time "Make Me Smile" wherein the tangible sense of exuberance expressed in Terry's vocal is amazingly uplifting. "So Much to Say" is an ominous change of pace that leads to the Beatle- like "Anxiety's Moment" and the excellent interplay between the horns, organ and guitar found inside "West Virginia Fantasies." This trio of short pieces flow together like a river. I'll give you that there's no love song in the history of mankind mushier than "Color My World" but there's no argument that it fits perfectly in the middle of this opus and Walter's flute work is superb. "To Be Free" serves as a welcome segue out of that eternal wedding combo must-play, driven by Daniel Seraphine's speed-demon drumming and they close out spectacularly with "Now More than Ever," a glorious reprise of the first segment. The climactic finale is a true classic.

Robert's "Fancy Colours" is jazz rock/fusion at its best. The beginning sets up a mystical aura with bassist Peter Cetera's sustained note creating a taut tension until they release and break into a carefree wah-wah-fueled waltz decorated with fancy flute runs provided by Parazaider. They close the number with energetic drums from Seraphine and blaring, hockey goal-worthy horn blasts that bring to mind Aaron Copland's bold brashness. Lamm's "25 or 6 to 4" is a reworking of an age-old descending blues riff with a catchy chorus tacked on and Kath's frantic guitar slicing & dicing from beginning to end. It's since become a staple of oldies radio but, to tell the truth, I prefer the kick-ass remake they included on album #18.

The tragic loss of Terry in '78 was a critical blow to their future as proggers. He wasn't just an axe-wielder. The versatility and scope of his writing acumen becomes obvious when you consider that he and some fellow named Peter Matz penned the very involved but also quite beautiful, classically-influenced, nearly ten-minute, four-part composition included on this album that starts with "Prelude" and finishes with "Memories of Love." It may not be everyone's tea cup but you have to concede that it's extremely ambitious even if the last cut is way too Rod McKuen new-age poetic for my taste. (Your leading lady will adore it, though. Shows off your "sensitive" side. She'll warm right up.)

The almost side-long "It Better End Soon" is a four-movement plea for peace, harmony and political sanity and one in which many of the band members contributed to the finished product. It opens as an aggressive rocker with a dynamic structure and Kath's singing grows more and more exasperated with humanity's constant failings as it moves along. Walter gets to blow out an extended but admirable breathy flute ride in the middle and they build up steadily to the emotional finale that contains a stirring horn flourish. Smooth- throated Cetera gets to be the caboose on this train, bringing up the rear with his well- written but ultimately unimpressionable "Where Do We Go From Here?" You might say they chose to ease out of this one with a whimper rather than with a bang.

"Chicago," despite being a usually-jinxed sophomore outing, is the apex of their huge catalogue. If they'd trimmed it down to a single disc it might've been a masterpiece of prog but less-is-more wasn't the trend in 1970 and the sky was the limit. As it is there's a touch of fluff to bear with as you make your way through this recording but the benefits vastly outweigh the detriments. And one can't ignore the fact that it managed to be well-received on both sides of the pond, reaching #4 in the USA and #6 in the UK. There's a palpable progressive mind-set that permeates the album and it deserves to be revered by those like me who often indulge in this variety-filled genre. This was their greatest achievement. 4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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