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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Chicago: Chicago III


1) Sing A Mean Tune Kid; 2) Loneliness Is Just A Word; 3) What Else Can I Say; 4) I Don't Want Your Money; 5) Flight 602; 6) Motorboat To Mars; 7) Free; 8) Free Country; 9) At The Sunrise; 10) Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home; 11) Mother; 12) Lowdown; 13) A Hard Risin' Morning Without Breakfast; 14) Off To Work; 15) Fallin' Out; 16) Dreamin' Home; 17) Morning Blues Again; 18) When All The Laughter Dies In Sorrow; 19) Canon; 20) Once Upon A Time; 21) Progress?; 22) The Approaching Storm; 23) Man Vs. Man: The End.

Theoretically, we are supposed to endorse this record, I think. After the noticeably softened-up Chicago II and its sentimental hits, the follow-up clearly jumped one notch up in terms of artistry. The multi-part suites here get lengthier and even more imposing; the song structures are less accessible and more challenging; and last, but not least, Kath's fiery guitarwork is back in full force, while the horns find themselves slightly downgraded in status. It is almost as if the prog virus, rampant in the air of 1971, finally infected the band and temporarily deflected them from the path of cheap romance and starched soulfulness.

Unfortunately, «more challenging» does not necessarily mean «rewarding», and given that the album was rather hastily put together during a short break in their hectic touring schedule (and once again puffed up to double LP length due to coercion by their producer, James William Guercio), it would not be prudent to expect any special flashes of brilliance. It is quite consistent­ly entertaining, diverse, and experimental, yet I cannot locate even a single song here that would be as obviously brilliant as ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ. It is a record that I can admire just for the sheer number of influences synthesized — jazz, blues, Latin, rock, country, folk, modern classical, avantgarde, even spoken poetry bits, you name it, it's all in there, on a scale that is pretty hard to match these days (in fact, it was pretty hard to match it even back in 1971). A swirling, head-spinning kaleidoscope that should, by all means, guarantee the band a rightful place in every hall of fame there is, regardless of what anybody thinks of Chicago MMCCCXLV. But not a single individual piece here really matches the highlights of the previous two albums.

Almost the entire first LP is dominated by Lamm's songwriting, although, to be fair, some of these songs are more like vehicles for Kath — beginning from the beginning: ʽSing A Mean Tune Kidʼ is a satisfying chunk of raunchy funk, though not crunchy enough for my tastes until it reaches the four minute mark, at which point Terry takes over and gives us one of the best solos of his entire career. If only he'd chosen a less muffled tone (for instance, switched over to the wah-wah), that performance would have kicked even more ass, but even as it is, it is every bit as good as any solo ever played by... well, Frank Zappa in his Hot Rats stage is probably the closest parallel (and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that this performance was influenced by ʽWillie The Pimpʼ in person). It is strange that he was not co-credited for this as he was on ʽI Don't Want Your Moneyʼ, a shorter, heavier, more lumbering blues-rocker that would feel perfectly at home on a Grand Funk Railroad record — and actually gets some blood pumping toward the end, when the brass section and the guitar find a common vibe and lock in on it, but is still inferior on the whole to ʽSing A Mean Tuneʼ.

On the album's second side, Lamm gets softer and more down-to-earth: his ʽTravel Suiteʼ is an attempt to probe the turf of Californian folk-pop — ʽFlight 602ʼ borrows a page directly from the Crosby, Stills & Nash textbook, as is the prettily harmonized ʽHappy 'Cause I'm Going Homeʼ. At the same time, it also further explores the realm of funk (ʽFreeʼ), piano balladry (ʽAt The Sunriseʼ) and even free-form improvisation at the intersection of jazz and minimalism (ʽFree Countryʼ). Throw in a gratuitous drum solo from Danny Seraphine (ʽMotorboat To Marsʼ), and you get an oddly construed monster whose chief underlying idea seems to be the prospect of freedom from an exhausting life of touring obligations — however, the music pieces are so dis­jointed that it never really comes together as a cohesive entity. (Well, maybe neither did the Abbey Road medley, but that one actually made a naughty, defying point of the disparity of its constituents: ʽTravel Suiteʼ does not exactly revel in that disparity). He makes his last point with ʽMotherʼ, a somewhat tepid jazzy eco-anthem with clichéd lyrics and a level of energy that does not quite agree with the message of "Our Mother has been raped!" (as good a spot as any to remind the population of how efficiently, in comparison, Jim Morrison had tackled the same issue in ʽWhen The Music's Overʼ).

Kath's suite is the smallest of all — in fact, it is not really a proper «suite», essentially just one song of a moderate length, divided into several consecutive sections as the protagonist goes through all of his daily motions. The only real musical «point» of the song is to have the soft, monotonous, tepidly funky drive replaced for a minute by the slow, cuddly psychedelic section of ʽDreamin' Homeʼ — signifying that dreaming is the most (the only) marvelous time in the life of the poor overworked hero. It is not difficult to get it all, but it is rather difficult to get excited about it, maybe because Kath's vocals are so unattractive, or maybe because there really isn't that much of anything to the melody beyond the basic groove: Terry hides his lead work mostly behind the brass and the vocals here, so that we could all sympathize with the working man's problems without getting distracted by some instrumental show-offs... too bad.

Finally, there's Pankow again, whose instrumental suite ʽElegyʼ might be the most original piece of music on the entire album and far more aptly adheres to the definition of «jazz-rock» than anything else here. You might, in fact, call it a sort of brass concerto, incorporating elements of classical, jazz, folk, avantgarde, and funk, all of them transferred under the dominion of trumpets, trombones, and flutes. I cannot say that I truly love any of the parts, but they do a good job lightly evoking a whole spectrum of emotions, from solemn sadness to tenderness to confusion to anger, and the entire suite should probably grow on the listener with each new listen, unlike ʽHour In The Showerʼ, which, conversely, becomes more and more tedious with each such listen.

To recapitulate — Chicago III could have been much better, perhaps, had the band not been so strongly pressed for time; on the other hand, Chicago were always at their best when they did not have enough time to sit down and write something expressly and utterly commercial, let alone the fact that in 1971, the general public could fathom something a bit more experimental. Thus, even though the album lacks the freshness, the rock energy, and the memorable hits of Chicago Transit Authority, it still captures the band at the peak of their genuinely creative potential. You may or may not like it, but there is absolutely no denying that at this point, the band was a literal living musical encyclopaedia, open to just about anything and not giving a damn about it — for this alone, the record merits a thumbs up. For each of these ideas, you can probably find some­body who did it better, and they don't even stack up perfectly against each other, but the hodge-podge is intriguing and challenging anyway.


  1. Could you please do revisions of Laura Marling albums, investigate it you will love it.

    1. you can't hijack the thread like that. you want to make a suggestion about future reviews figure out a way to get in touch with him. Its not hard.

  2. You're tackling the Chicago discography! I've only listened to their albums through Hot Streets; I can only imagine what happens from there.

    Given the final comments of your recent review of CTA, I was afraid (given your old reviews) that Chicago (II) and Chicago III would be given some thrashings. I am happy to see that this is not the case. If anything, it looks like Chicago (II) grew on you a bit. I know I was taken aback by the shift of sound from their debut. Having made the adjustment, I realized that it (and III by extension) are very creative records with fine musicianship. The muddy production of their second album has been cleaned up a good deal with Steven Wilson's remix.

    I agree with most of your points about their third album. It seems to try to mix/balance the approaches from their first two records, but ends up being a messier record! There's something endearing about this mess (and the lack of editing, most noticeable on their third double set), since they are still in creative overdrive.

    I'm curious to see how you deal with their 4th and live album (the horns are supposed to sound better on the remaster). If not, try to find Live in Japan if you are able, as its sound quality is quite decent. I'd say their 5th and 7th (studio) albums are nearly the quality of their first three records. After that, things get more spotty.

  3. Agree totally with Brian's comments above. Pankow has dissed IV's sound because Carnegie Hall was not built for electric music. He endorses the Japan show (which was less than a year later) as being the definitive early Chicago live recording.

    "unlike ʽHour In The Showerʼ, which, conversely, becomes more and more tedious with each such listen."
    Agreed. Terry does sound a lot more involved on this record, but Shower is just meandering nonsense, to quote: "I might say things I shouldn't say, so I better stop..."

    Great review, as always.