Quickie Review: NOW: CHICAGO XXXVI

Now: Chicago XXXVI is probably as cohesive as you can expect an album recorded piecemeal on the road in hotel rooms and backstage green rooms can be. It’s a musical experiment with interesting results. Ultimately, it’s the kind of album that happens when you let the members of the band be themselves, instead of playing assigned roles. Cool things happen when you don’t force Jason Scheff to sing like Peter Cetera, or Lou Pardini like Bill Champlin. Or when Keith Howland and Tris Imboden don’t have to play like Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine.

They’ve actually tried the “be yourself” approach in fits and starts over the decades since the original lineup suffered the loss of guitarist Terry Kath. In that way, this record reminds me a lot of Hot Streets and Chicago 13–and no, that’s not a slam!! Sure, if you bought those albums in the late ’70s expecting Terry Kath, then Donnie Dacus was inevitably going to disappoint you. But if you listened with your nostalgia-brain instead of your ears, you wouldn’t have heard the (okay fine, the admittedly few) hidden gems in those albums.  Hey, I get it. I wanted to shout, “Blasphemer!” the first time I heard “Look Away” done without Bill Champlin, but I learned to live with it, but I didn’t want to quickly came around.

You can read the historical context of those two albums elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, better or worse, those albums were where Chicago was in the “Now” 1978 and 1979. A new guitarist and a different producer with different musical backgrounds and styles that had to be absorbed by the band. Problem was, they conflated their “Now” with whatever they hoped might keep them relevant and on the radio–which weren’t necessarily the same thing. But who could blame them?

The difference with Now: Chicago XXXVI is that it doesn’t feel like Chicago is cramming everyone’s style into a mold using a screwdriver and a plumber’s helper. Of course, it helps that the individual band members (along with Hank Linderman) were “supervising producers” for different tracks–guys with, collectively (especially with the two most recent additions Lou Pardini and Walfredo Reyes, Jr.), at least as much experience in the recording industry now as Phil Ramone had in ’78 and ’79. But this time, the album clearly embraces everyone in the band, and you can hear the difference. It end product really sounds like work from the sort of “musical collective” Chicago always touted themselves as being.

Instead of simultaneously trying to please the jazz-rock/oldies crowd while playing disco-, synth-, or country-pop, or whatever the hell “the kids” are into this decade, you’re going to hear musicians show you decades of writing and playing chops. And so you’ll recognize some of the old Chicago horn vocabulary, but you’ll hear new phrasings, too. You’ll be reminded of those old segues in non-4/4 time signatures and maybe a bit of a multi-part suite, but no 14-minute jazz/rock jams (although I’d buy a whole Chicago album of just that). You’ll hear a ballad, but no “You’re the Inspiration” knock-offs. You’ll hear different musical styles blended together, from hard rock to bossa, and a couple of spots with a tasteful hint of dubstep. Because a lot has gone on in music between 1969 and 2014, and they know all about it.

What you definitely won’t hear is the ghost of Terry Kath or the ghosts of “…the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and Today”.  You will hear guys who lived and learned their way through all of that, musically, and they’re going to tell you all about it.

You know, I almost wish they put the live version of their classic “Introduction” (a bonus download track) at the front of the album. It would’ve been as appropriate a setup for this album as it was for Chicago Transit Authority.  Because I was definitely put through the changes. Might’ve cared more for some than others, but the more I listen, the more I don’t feel this is an album of old guys out to show you young tone-deaf idiots with your Garage Band app how it’s really done. Or, if that is the intention, that’s just not my takeaway. The songs do strike me different. I do feel moved.
Okay, so maybe this review wasn’t so quick. Sorry.  Might as well go song by song at this point…

  • “Now” might be my favorite song. Clearly, Earth, Wind & Fire rubbed off on them during those tours.
  • “More Will Be Revealed” is a straightforward Robert Lamm joint, almost sounds like something from that album he did with Gerry Beckley and Carl Wilson.
  • “America” reminds me of Chicago XIV (as does like the cover). Okay, maybe that is a (loving, little bit of a) slam. I’m surprised they passed up a chance slip in the line “We can make it better.” Not quite the best of this bunch, IMO. I give it a pass, because 1) I do like America and 2) it was one of the first efforts of this experiment.
  • “Crazy Happy” is a nice rock/trip hop mash-up. Modern, without sounding forced. 
  • “Free at Last” has shades of the Howland/Imboden Projectfinally!  And, I love the mini-movements throughout the song.  It’s the closest to classic jazz-rock Chicago without sounding at all dated. Probably my favorite track.
  • “Love Lives On” is the only real ballad on the whole album, and where Jason Scheff shines as he sings in a much wider vocal range than I’ve ever heard him do on a Chicago album.
  • “Something’s Coming I Know” is co-written by Gerry Beckley and Robert Lamm. I could just stop right there; that should be enough. The best horn parts are here, too.
  • “Watching All the Colors” sounds like pretty standard bossa fare that left me feeling a little meh.
  • “Nice Girl” — Keith Howland on vocals, singing in his range and not trying to squeeze out “Old Days.” What a concept! I could take or leave the lyrics, but the playing is top notch. Didn’t care for the ending, though. 
  • “Naked in the Garden of Allah” — if this and “America” were meant to be callbacks to Chicago V, then this succeeded way more than the latter.
  • The title “Another Trippy Day” made me think two things: First, “What, not …in New York City?” and second,  “Oh, god, here comes the cheese… they saved it for the last track.” I was wrong. Well, mostly. 
I have one nit to pick, though: The downloadable lyric book could really use another run with the spell/grammar check.
Now to find out if my mp3 purchase qualifies me to be entered to win a trumpet signed by Lee Loughnane.  I would play the fuck out of that axe!