Thursday, May 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Chicago II" by Chicago

Like most people my age, I suppose, I first encountered Chicago (the band) in George Orwell's 1984, when Peter Cetera's adult-contemporary songs and vocals met David Foster's shiny MOR arrangements to create a globe-conquering 1980s monster, a particularly treacly, sticky-sweet monster.

Having met Chicago in this fashion, and having subsequently learned about their earlier days as a Blood, Sweat and Tears-style 'fusion' band, I must admit I was more than a little reluctant to explore their earlier albums, imagining them as 1980s mainstream ballads with an improvising brass section on top - an unholy concoction that you surely must agree would be absolutely unbearable.

Yet early Chicago is not that at all, really. This album is much more listenable than I expected. Enjoyable, in fact, and I never saw that coming.

First things first: Chicago are that unstoppable institution who spent decades periodically releasing intentionally samey-looking albums: albums that were given consecutive numbers as opposed to names and endless variations on the iconic Chicago logo for a cover. It makes them stand out in a CD rack in a record store, but it inspires the shopper to merely look at the covers before putting them back unpurchased. It's tough to imagine anyone, even the most devout Chicago fans, arguing the relative merits of, say, XIV versus VII. This extensive back catalogue all seems interchangeable, really.

Especially given their propensity for doubles. This particular album, their second, was a double (which is why I'm talking about it). But so was their début. And their third album. Their fourth album, by comparison, was a four-record set. And, yes, for those keeping count, that's ten records in two and a half years. Not that that's so strange: the band featured several songwriters, and none of these megaliths feature any kind of thematic unity: they're just 'another ninety minutes of stuff we've recently recorded' (except for IV, which is live). The current album is not really any different from the others, but it was the 'breakthrough', with three top-ten singles and with its shiny chrome cover more iconic than any of the others.

The début featured twelve songs over four sides, three apiece. While this one appears to almost double that, with 23 tracks on the label, it's mostly just a matter of how you look at it. This album features three ten-minute multipart 'suites' (which at times have no discernible difference between 'parts' really), and if one counts them as one song each, then this album actually has only eleven distinct 'pieces'. And as such, they come to their extended lengths in the two main ways 'rock' music artists manage to increase their track lengths: through improvisation or through fragmentation. It's my particular belief that Chicago benefits from the fragmentary approach more than they do from the improvisatory approach, but I will concede that that's largely my own particular bias: I'm admittedly no friend of the jam-session.

Chicago II

Side one
  1. Wake Up Sunshine (2:29)
  2. The Road (3:10)
  3. Ballad for a Girl in Buchannon (12:55)
    1. Make Me Smile (4:40)
    2. So Much to Say, So Much to Give (1:12)
    3. Anxiety's Moment (1:01)
    4. West Virginia Fantasies (1:34)
    5. Colour My World (3:01)
    6. To be Free (1:15)
    7. Now More than Ever (1:26)
Side two
  1. 25 or 6 to 4 (4:50)
  2. Poem for the People (5:31)
  3. Movin' In (4:06)
  4. Where Do We Go From Here (2:49)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Chicago II, Single-Disc Version «

Movin' In: keep (side two, track three)

Brass on top of 'rock' instruments, this would appear to be the basic Chicago template, and what better way to start the album than with a statement-of-purpose, right? But it's not actually especially representative, being more eager-to-please than much of the rest of the album. 'Swinging' in a finger-popping way you rarely hear from the Chicago of this era, it almost has a vibe to it that I'd describe as 'Las Vegas' were that not a bit of an anachronism at this point. A skronky sax solo shows up midway through once the song was at risk of being just too damn likable, but as skronky sax solos go, it's more tolerable than many, and doesn't really damage the song overall. It's not a jaw-dropping composition by any means, but it's just a competent vehicle for the arrangement, really. And that arrangement wins me over. It's easy to see how this might have seemed revolutionary in 1969.

I don't think it makes sense as the opening track, though. In fact, I see it more as an end-of-album thing, and so I put it in penultimate position, as the album's last horn-piece. After all, it's late into your career that you start playing Vegas, isn't it?

The Road: keep (side one, track two)

And here we are. This is exactly what Chicago was back then, and it's pretty great: this is a more-or-less traditional rock song with traditional rock instrumentation and harmonies... with a complex horn chart placed over top. I say 'over top', but that implies a synthetic addition, and the brass at no point seems superfluous. It seems like the most natural thing in the world, actually, and it's odd to consider how little effect Chicago ultimately did have on modern music, despite their shed-loads of sales in the 1970s. Because music doesn't sound like this after all. And it never really did. Music's loss. This is exciting, dynamic music - even if you don't walk away with much in the way of a memory to hum. No surprise Chicago themselves shucked this particular skin in time.

I'll be honest with you: though I'm fine with where I ended up putting this song, it's more to do with timing than mood; really, with the two shortest songs having specific places on the album, this was merely 'the shortest song I could fit into the original's side two, which became my side one with the addition of this track in slot number two'.

Poem For the People: keep (side two, track two)

The horns show up thirty seconds in. And with time, those 1960s post-Beatles harmonies kick in too. So there's maybe not anything 'special' about this song, but it comes together with a particular grace, starting with a lonely piano plunking a heartstring-pulling chord pattern. I don't think the lyrics, vague life-is-hell stuff that keeps talking about 'the people', are up to much. But they rarely are on this album, are they? Once the majority of them are over, the tempo picks up and the horns are all over the place. The particular spell cast at the beginning of the track is probably gone by then, but what remains is still decent enough.

The third song in three to make the cut. I put this as the second track of side two, a 'major statement' following another one.

In the Country: lose

The longest song on side one is, perhaps not surprisingly, the most boring, A genial rolling-thunder big-band vibe permeates this song, as if it was designed to be a stadium crowd-pleaser, but it's equal parts Blood Sweat and Tears-style catchiness and Joe Cocker-style emotiveness - which in principle has potential but here merely brings out the worst aspects of both. It isn't easy to listen to this song all the way through to the end. It feels as if minutes and minutes are tacked onto this song just for the hell of it. And in addition, have you ever noticed how any song that tells you to have a good time is that much less likely to actually cause people to have a good time? Some things are evidently better left unsaid.

Wake Up Sunshine: keep (side one, track one)

There's an unwritten rule in popular music that says that songs with the word 'sunshine' in their title have to sound pretty much exactly like this: optimistic, breezy and perhaps more than a little naive. This song is a valuable addition to the genre: short and sweet, with Beach Boys harmonies and a strange ending tacked on - that ending is certainly 'experimental' enough, but on an album stuffed with complexity and improvisation, this particular little 'ditty' certainly sticks out. Its to-the-point efficiency makes it feel like it belongs on a different album (horns notwithstanding), but it's here instead, and it lifts the spirits amidst a not-small amount of self-indulgence. Charming, and I don't mean that as an insult.

Could there be a more obvious opening track than this? I have no idea why Chicago didn't open the album with this particular sunrise. So I did.

Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Make Me Smile: keep (side one, track three)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: So Much to Say, So Much to Give: keep (side one, track four)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Anxiety's Moment: keep (side one, track five)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: West Virginia Fantasies: keep (side one, track six)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Colour My World: keep (side one, track seven)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: To Be Free: keep (side one, track eight)
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Now More Than Ever: keep (side one, track nine)

The first of three 'suites' on the album, this is admittedly made up of seven discrete parts. Yet they are all joined together and flow seamlessly from one to another (with the exception of 'Colour My World', which sits in the middle of the piece as a separate entity). The reference point here is side two of Abbey Road, where tiny half-songs that would have been ridiculous on their own somehow cohere to a larger whole when integrated in a suite-like fashion. I have no idea why this is called a 'ballet', but it works in entirely the same fashion. Only 'Make Me Smile' and 'Colour My World' (not coincidentally the two singles) really stand out on their own, while much of the rest is rather disposable when looked at bit-by-bit. As a coherent thirteen-minute whole, though, I think it works quite well indeed, with a certain grace and beauty. 'Make Me Smile' (together with its coda 'Now More Than Ever') serves as the main 'theme', and it's a very sixties 'rock' song, hummable and filled with a certain love of life that does indeed, if you'll forgive the triteness, make one smile. 'Colour My World', the centrepiece, is an evergreen classic, and deservedly so: the piano-and-drum arpeggiating triplets sets the song up for a beautiful single verse before the sweetest of flute melodies comes in. The whole thing is calming, elegant and terribly beautiful. I'm too young to remember it as a slow-dance standby, and maybe that's for the better: I can hear it without being overcome by mawkish memories of adolescence.

The remainder of the suite, after these two, are less essential, but the whole piece deserves to be considered as an all-or-nothing gambit. And since I can listen to these thirteen minutes much easier than most thirteen-minute pieces, I give this whole package the green light, putting it last on side one (it is of course the majority of side one). I don't love the piece's rather arbitrary division into seven. Chicago put out a box set in the 1990s that divided this piece into three parts: everything before Colour My World, Colour My World, everything after it. I actually like that far more than the seven-part division. But most of all I think I'd like it to be a single thirteen-minute track.

Fancy Colours: lose

This track serves a kind of public service stuck here right in the middle of the album: it's a bit like those fish you buy to control algae in a pond. And swimming in the deep idea pool that Chicago no doubt generated, being a large group of composers flush with creativity and the excitement of youth, this particular track trawls about, skimming up the very worst of this at-times-bombastic group's ideas, collating them all together on a single track so that they don't contaminate neighbouring songs instead. This track is, let's not mince words, god-awful. But like an appendix storing toxins in the body, it's not that difficult to extricate. Consider this an appendectomy, then.

25 or 6 to 4: keep (side two, track one)

This is a shoo-in for inclusion, really. There's no doubt about why this particular track has become an FM radio staple down the years: it's a confident strut of a song that rocks much harder and more convincingly than brass instruments have any right to. Arranged with different instruments, this could have almost fit comfortably on any of Black Sabbath's early-seventies albums, and just how bizarre is that? Regarding the song's lyrics, I'm willing to come out in favour of meaningless babble as lyrics in a song where the vocals really just serve as one more instrument in the overall groove, the one the listener gets to play along with. Why let meaning mess with that? The wah-wah solo is perhaps overdone. But perhaps it really has to be - anything else would probably have been a disappointment.

This song deserves not to be stuck somewhere in the middle of a side. I let it open side two, roaring to life after the "Ballet", and after the intermission that a ballet ought to have. My side two is all songs, no concept. So this is the best way to break it in.

Memories of Love: Prelude: lose
Memories of Love: A.M. Mourning: lose
Memories of Love: P.M. Mourning: lose
Memories of Love: Memories of Love: lose

This was probably the most difficult decision of the album for me. For the very different nature of this particular 'piece', I wanted to include it. It's woodwinds and strings, not supplementing a generic rock song but by themselves, on a rather pretty little delicacy, for the most part quite calm and minimalist. It's a really decent attempt at something different. But at the same time, it's a bit too precious, and it's sadly bloodless. The vocal part, when it comes along (minutes later) is a letdown: the slow melody is hesitant and goes nowhere. Ultimately I said no not only because nine minutes is a lot to devote to an experiment. I said no because the pastoral and vaguely cinematic sound of the track unfortunately is wrapped around a composition too inconsequential to merit nine minutes.

It Better End Soon: 1st Movement: lose
It Better End Soon: 2nd Movement: lose
It Better End Soon: 3rd Movement: lose
It Better End Soon: 4th Movement: lose

It takes a certain amount of moxie to title your ten-minutes-plus 'epic' 'It Better End Soon' - God knows about five minutes in, that's precisely what I was thinking. I put the word 'epic' in quotation marks because unlike the other multipart 'suites' on Chicago II, this is really just one extra-long song, divided rather arbitrarily into four for no clear reason. It's very much a late-sixties rock song, extended much the way as songs tended to be extended back then. There is a lengthy solo (on flute), there's a slower middle part with more grunting than usual, and there's a brief 'coda' of the first part of the song at the end. It's just in this particular case those are presented as four distinct 'movements', which they really aren't. It sounds like Joe Cocker sounded at around the same time. I don't find it very interesting at all, but at least it serves one worthy purpose: reminding the listening audience was the album as a whole could have sounded like, if Chicago were less talented.

Where Do We Go From Here: keep (side two, track seven)

This is Peter Cetera's only composition on the album, and it rather ironically answers its own titular question by in substance pointing the way forward. No brass here, no jazz. This is a song, recorded with a singer-songwriter acoustic sheen and those would-be Beach Boys harmonies. It doesn't fit on the album at all really, but from the fifth album on, this would suddenly become 'what Chicago sound like'. Prescient, sure, but worthy? Well, yes. And that's all to do with something that is hard to admit: that Cetera really does have a way with a melody. Its brevity is a kind of breath of fresh air by itself.

There are several good reasons to use this song to end off the album. Not only does it have a title that indicates 'last track', but the piece as a whole is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I said above, and ending an album with a 'taste' of what lies ahead is a famous album-sequencing gambit. None of this would be apparent if the song were somewhere in the middle.


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