Chicago re-embraces its sonic trademark with success on “Chicago XXXVI: Now”
In our article titled “The rampant trend of ageism in modern pop music” (published in February 2013), we highlighted the minimal incentive of artists of yesteryear to record and release material. It appears that this class of artists and bands is destined to be relegated to the past – since any new material by them goes unnoticed due to lack of promotion, which in turn, results from a rampant ageism perpetrated by the music industry’s largest gatekeepers (in the US, terrestrial radio and its limited selection of music still reign). Some artists and bands shy away from releasing new material since they believe that the relative obscurity of their new material will dilute their legacy – at least from a commercial perspective if not an artistic perspective. We understand their concerns but we’re thrilled at times when talented artists from yesteryear do not succumb to this concern and instead make the audacious move to grow their legacy at a time at which the odds are stacked against them. We have showcased the music of several such bands (on our radio station Radio Crème Brulee) since we launched back in 2007, but this time, we are thrilled to welcome back an act that goes down as being one of America’s most successful rock acts of all time – Chicago.
The illustrious career of Chicago dates back to 1967. Their generous use of instruments and horn arrangements quickly became an integral piece of their sonic trademark – one that dominated their sound in the 1970s – which was probably their most prolific period as a band. Their career took another huge commercial leap in the 80s with hit power ballads like “Hard Habit To Break”(3# on the US charts), “Look Away” (#1 on the US charts) and “Will You Still Love Me” (#1 on the US charts) – all of which assaulted the Billboard charts. The departure of vocalist Peter Cetera did not kill the momentum of the band one bit in the 80s. They continued to record and went from one achievement to the next. While most iconic acts from the 80s ended that decade on a commercial low, Chicago was riding high. The 90s were a quiet time for the band wherein they only recorded one album titled “The Stone Of Sisyphus” which did not see the light of day until 2008 due to issues with the band’s recording company. The band did record one album of new material “Chicago XXX” in 2006.
Looking back at the catalog of Chicago, one cannot help but think that this was a band that churned out classics. More importantly, the sonic template of this band was one that guaranteed a “classic” sound that would hold up indefinitely. In an age wherein the sound of artists is almost completely determined by the vision of a handful of producers that dominate the music scene, almost nothing bears a “classic” feel. Furthermore, the concept of production revolves around electronic beats and knob-turning. Musical instruments and arrangements seem to have taken quite the backseat. It appears that Chicago never missed an opportunity to create a richly textured sound – especially with the horn arrangements. Fortunately, the band has embraced their sonic trademark on an album of new material titled “Chicago XXXVI:Now” (slated for release on July 4, 2014). We managed to get a pre-release listen yesterday to the entire album – and fortunately, for us, it was totally worthwhile.
On “Chicago XXXVI: Now”, the band appears to have combined the sound that they honed in the 70s (with their trademark horn arrangements) with the commercial sensibility that propelled them in the 80s. This approach truly works. With the exception of Jason Scheff (age 52) and Keith Howland (age 49), the members of the band are now in their 60s. Yet, the album brims with a youthful exuberance that is especially reflected in the vocals on almost every song.
The album’s title track “Now” is an obvious lead single and is practically begging for radio airplay. It has already been added to the playlist of BBC Radio 2 in the UK. The song opens with a classic trumpet introduction that is bound to leave the listener thinking “thank god, Chicago is back”. Time has not eroded the impeccable vocal ability of singer Jason Scheff. The harmonies on the chorus are fantastic and are stylistically reminiscent of an old track by the band titled “No Tell Lover”. The chorus is bound to stick in the heads of listeners:
Now, this is the time we must start living in
Let’s make a change while it’s not too late.
Let’s make a place where love is happening.
The horn arrangements dominate through the entire track. The song closes with a brilliant electric guitar section. This song, without a doubt is a Chicago essential and fits right besides hits like “Saturday in the Park”, “If You Leave Me Now”, and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”.
“Love Lives On” is vocally one of the most beautiful musical moments on the album. It is primarily downtempo and is characterized by a sparse acoustic vibe with a slightly lower reliance on horn arrangements. Jason Scheff sings poignantly about a love whose path has no limit and will transcend time. In the 80s, this love song, without a doubt, would have been a chart-topper.
“Something’s Coming I know” just might be one of the most pop-oriented tracks on the album. The timing of its release could not be more perfect given the number of modern artists (e.g. Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Mayer Hawthorne) that have embraced an old-school sound since 2013 which they have successfully brought into the mainstream. Like “Now”, this song is a prime candidate for radio airplay – primarily due to its catchy chorus, tinge of Hall & Oates, great horn arrangements, and a great electric guitar section at the end. Old school with a fresh new twist has rarely been this satisfying.
“Watching all the colors” just might be the most escapist track on the album. With its strong Bossa Nova-ish stylistic foundation, it is likely to transport the listener to the beaches of Rio De Janeiro. The song’s lyrics and production together paint quite a picture. It sounds like something that could have been recorded in the late 70s. Whether or not terrestrial radio embraces this track, we at Radio Crème Brulee surely will.
“Naked in The Garden of Allah” showcases the band making a foray into the controversial. It also marks a return to the politicized tone of Chicago’s early material.
“We are young, we are brutal, we are violent, we are deadly, we are broken, we are ignorant, we are naked in the Garden of Allah”.
The lyrics can be a bit deceptive. At times, it is unclear as to whether vocalist Robert Lamm is singing from the perspective of a fanatic from the Middle East asking for an understanding of who he is – or if he is singing from the perspective of a global citizen begging for peace in a region whose life has been underscored by violence and turbulence for decades. One of the noteworthy aspects of the song is its fusion of the classic Chicago sound with Middle Eastern elements. While the commercial viability of this track may not compare to that of songs such as “Desert Rose” by Sting (featuring Cheb Maami), the song is a fantastic exercise in musical experimentation.
“Another Trippy Day” suggests that the band might still believe in the structure of the album format – a concept that has been shredded to bits by the advent of digital downloads. This primary avenue of music consumption has rendered the notion of an album structure quite irrelevant. The song’s light-hearted smooth jazz flavor has the ingredients of an album closer – and it works. It almost might be one of the most modern tracks on the album with an irresistible chorus.
The album is by no means perfect but is without a doubt a labor of love of musicians that aspired to make a great album and did an amazing job of it. Some of the album’s “filler” moments include songs like “Nice Girl” and “Free at last” (despite the song showcasing the rock roots of the band). The album’s highlights more than compensate for its filler moments and the songs come together in a very cohesive manner. “Chicago XXXVI” is the sound of artistry and is every bit a modern classic. It is bound to bring a smile on the face of people that remember an era in which artistry was a precursor to stardom and not the other way around. We hope this album sets a benchmark for modern artists to aspire towards. We are thrilled that Chicago are continuing to do what they do best and have no desire to slow down despite being in the business for 46 years.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
For your listening pleasure, we have embedded short clips of all tracks on the new Chicago album below. Please feel free to share and comment.
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