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Chicago - Chicago XI CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

2.93 | 58 ratings

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2 stars After Chicago peaked with their excellent VII album in '74 they became satisfied to be a pop group that occasionally drifted near the outskirts of jazz/rock fusion rather than the other way around. Some of their subsequent albums sounded decent but none of them were particularly progressive or adventuresome and XI is no exception. Like many bands who've managed to stay intact for a decade or more, they fell into comfortable, safe ruts that guaranteed them a respectable amount of sales and allowed the gravy train to keep on 'a rollin' unimpeded. I'm not excusing them from strapping their saddle atop the commercial cash cow but it's yet another example of human proclivities trumping free creativity and diminishing the impact an entity can have in their chosen field of art once a little success creeps into the picture. In the late 70s my feelings about this outfit, formerly one of my favorites, had evolved from admiration to apathy that stemmed from repeated disappointments in their vinyl offerings. I finally had to accept that the dangerous lions of the Midwest had now become a litter of harmless kittens.

Guitarist Terry Kath's "Mississippi Delta City Blues" starts things off in a loose but lively way with a funky, Sly & the Family Stone-styled motif. The song shows promise early on mainly because of the tight track they laid down under it with drummer Danny Seraphine playing more distinctively than he has in years. The crisp horn arrangement, as usual, is the icing on the cake but I still can't give the tune more than a so-so rating. Any hopes for something exhilarating to happen are dashed on the jagged pop rocks about two seconds into bassman/crooner Peter Cetera's "Baby, What a Big Surprise." By now they were routinely capitalizing on their carefully-calculated image of being mainstays in the upper regions of the Top 40 charts due to their unending stream of lush ballads so this is hardly a surprise at all. I appreciate that they spent time on the string score and the layered vocal harmonies (with Beach Boy Carl Wilson assisting) but it only made a schmaltzy song even more overly-saccharine and hard to digest. Trombonist James Pankow's "Till the End of Time" is next and it's a case of doo-wop nostalgia gone bad. It grows tiresome quickly and is so predictable as to be patronizing. Simply put, they do nothing to put a fresh spin on their venture into the past. Things look up slightly with keyboard player Robert Lamm's "Policeman" because they present the tune with a light Latin feel that's very welcome at this point even though the jazz aspect is extremely contemporary in nature. Kudos go out to the horn section for adding some highlights and elevating the track's class quotient.

One thing that makes this album stick out in their catalogue is the fact that Seraphine, not known for his composing skills up to this juncture, contributes the best numbers on the record, beginning with a song that expresses what many of their fans had been wishing they'd do for a long time, "Take Me Back to Chicago." The tune has different elements to enjoy and a few nifty detours off the beaten path that remind me of what I loved about them in the first place when they were willing to take risks. Bringing in Chaka Khan to supply some soulful singing doesn't hurt one bit, either. The growl of Lamm's Hammond B3 organ is the only interesting thing going on in his "Vote For Me." It's a mix of rock, R&B and funk that doesn't quite gel mainly because the song's basic structure is too weak to make much of a mark. It comes off more like a handy vehicle to voice a political statement about how candidates lie (what else is new?) than a well-thought-out idea. Kath's "Takin' It on Uptown" is a riff-based funk/rock ditty that doesn't benefit from its intentional rough character and suffers greatly from a dearth of dynamics. While Terry tears it up pretty good on the guitar I question the wisdom of leaving the horn section out of the proceedings.

Trumpeter Lee Loughlane's "This Time" has a Motown-ish groove that's inviting but it takes a lot to impress me when someone dips into that particular genre and they come up short, as do most. It's no embarrassment but it does pass right on by like everyday traffic. As intimated before, Danny outdoes himself on this album. The last three cuts are splendidly intertwined and he had a lot to do with their creation. "The Inner Struggle of a Man" is a short symphonic piece by Dominic Frontiere with ominous overtones ala Aaron Copland and then Seraphine's "Prelude" serves as a segue to "Little One." The number's jazzy but floral atmosphere might be a bit too romantic for some but in light of what they'd been putting out on the last few LPs it at least has some intricate parts to ponder. Loughlane's trumpet solo is excellent and the cohesive triad of tunes in general makes me wonder why they'd become so hell bent on doggedly downplaying their jazz side when it was what put them on the map back in '69.

Released in September 1977, the album went up to #6 but very few of the original followers they'd captivated and cultivated in the early years were still paying much attention. The abandonment of their jazz/rock fusion roots was no temporary phase and the likelihood of them doing an about face was growing slimmer by the record. Of course no one knew that one of their strongest assets was soon to depart this mortal coil and change the complexion of the group forevermore. Terry Kath took his own life in a tragic gun accident and a huge part of what was left of their rebelliousness went with him. He represented the rock half of their initial jazz/rock fusion persona and his gruff voice added a unique dimension to their sound that couldn't be replaced. This was also the last album to be produced by the overbearing James William Guercio and, by not having to answer to him any longer, the door was wide open for them to do something innovative and exciting. Whether they'd be brave enough to do that was yet to be determined. 2.2 stars.

Chicapah | 2/5 |


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