Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Album review: 'Now - Chicago XXXVI'


With gazillion’s of hit songs and albums to their name, and one of the most consistently busy touring schedules of any band, Chicago certainly function admirably as the money-making entity Lamm laments in the above quote. As is their right, frankly. But both Lamm and long-term fans of the band have been increasingly frustrated in recent decades with the lack of new output. When it has come, it has usually been in the form of Christmas albums (three to date – even Neil Diamond stopped after two!), while their sole original studio album of recent years, 2006’s tepid Chicago XXX, managed to be almost as disappointing as no new album at all, and many, myself included, had written the band off as a creatively spent force, finding solace only in Lamm’s excellent, but largely ignored, solo output. Until (and it’s impossible to get around the pun, sorry about that…) Now.

Quite simply, this is the sort of album Chicago should have been making on a regular basis since the late 90s. Let’s be clear – they haven’t reinvented the wheel, and if you’re looking for an album that takes them back to the avant-garde/counterculture origins of their first three albums, you won’t find it here, but they have discovered a mature pop sound that befits their veteran status, but is much more satisfying than much of the bland material they were having hits with in the late 80s. A major part of that is the return to prominence of the horn section; if the horns were used at all in the 80s it usually felt like an afterthought, but here the horn arrangements are built into the songs – just like they were in the old days (sorry, was that another pun? Whoops…) and for the first time in what feels like centuries it’s blatantly obvious that they are making music that they want to make, not music to be played on the radio (though plenty of it is still accessible and radio friendly). 

The album is sufficiently varied stylistically to render any attempted catch-all label redundant, but to me, overall it most strongly recalls the poppier material of Chicago VII, which is no bad thing. There are shifts between tempos and moods across the album and even within individual songs, and interesting and inventive arrangements, though without much in the way of instrumental soloing. Each and every song is memorable and contains a strong hook – it’s telling that I’ve had every song playing randomly in my head at some point in the past few weeks, and have had some difficulty in deciding favourites!

To the delight of old-school Chicago fans everywhere, seven of the eleven cuts have Lamm’s name in the writing credits - the highest ratio since Chicago V, though such a comparison is slightly misleading, given that these are all co-writes, some with other band members, and others with regular collaborators from Phil Galdston and America’s Gerry Beckley to John Van Eps and the project’s ‘coordinating producer’ Hank Linderman. It’s hard to fathom that it was actually Lamm who was the most skeptical about adopting Loughnane’s ‘rig’ as their travelling recording studio! Jason Scheff also contributes several excellent tracks, making this a fine return to form for him after the hit and miss affair that was XXX. His bass playing on the album is also superb throughout and is the best I’ve heard from him to date.

The album kicks off with a brilliant one-two punch in the form of Scheff’s title track and Lamm’s exquisite More Will Be Revealed, an excellent example of what Chicago fans who haven’t delved into his solo albums are missing out on! (My review of his last album can be found HERE).

Trumpeter Lee Loughnane criticises the US government in America, a track which has been amusingly misunderstood as overly and embarrassingly patriotic by some commentators. For me it’s the one near-miss of the album. I can’t decide whether the lyrics are a little overworked or underworked (‘If we work together at a steady pace/We will make the land we love a better place’ being it’s clunkiest couplet) but it’s refreshing to have political commentary back in the mix, the horn arrangement would fit on any mid-70s Chicago album and new member Lou Pardini’s vocal is strong, so it almost comes off.

Pardini also shines in his collaboration with Lamm on Watching All the Colors (Ah for the days when, despite being American, Chicago could spell ‘colour’ correctly!) and overall he is just a much better fit for the band than his predecessor Bill Champlin (though it should never be forgotten that Champlin was one of the best things about the band in the 80s, back in the days before he became bored). Pardini isn’t the only ‘new’ member to make his mark here - despite being in the band for two decades this is guitarist Keith Howland’s first real chance to show what he can do on record and he grabs the opportunity with both hands. His co-writing and production on the smooth Nice Girl and Free at Last, which starts low but builds up to a more frenetic pace in the choruses and end section (and is really the only song here that recalls (very) early Chicago, with Howland’s chugging rhythm guitar bringing Terry Kath firmly to mind), are very strong indeed.

Elsewhere Scheff’s Love Lives On finds the band in more familiar ballad territory, but this is one of the finest they’ve recorded – which is saying something - and Scheff’s vocal is sublime, while Lamm’s own political commentary track – a more successful one than America it has to be said – Naked in the Garden of Allah has the most adventurous arrangement of the set, with diverse elements from a programed middle-eastern sound to guest Doobie Brother John McFee on fiddle. The horns make a comparatively brief appearance in this mix, but when they do come in they are again there in full force. This should really have been the album closer, with ‘bonus track’ Another Trippy Day included earlier in the album (probably between America and Crazy Happy), but this is about as big a quibble I have with this release.

The album’s liner notes state that Chicago are ‘already working on their next collection of music’ and if they manage even one or two more albums of this quality (with perhaps just a little more room for them to stretch out and display their instrumental prowess) they will have created a rare late-career comeback of real significance to their legacy. And this time I believe they can do it. But if only they'd be brave enough to play more than one new track per concert...!