Becky's Reviews of Chicago Albums, CTA through 17
Release Date: 1977
Cover Design: Map
Proves Cover Theory?: No (I love this cover)
Becky Rating: VIII out of X
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
It's impossible to listen to Chicago XI without thinking of the enormous tragedy the band suffered soon after this album's release. An aura of sadness, loss, and what-might-have-been, similar to that of John Lennon's Double Fantasy, hangs over the record. For a moment, though, let's try to forget about that and focus on the music, which is very, very good - this is Chicago's best album since VII and is a total turnaround from the disaster that was X. Everything that was great about the Good Parts Version of Chicago is back - noisy guitar, horn soloing, social commentary, and very strong songs, most of which wear their musical influences on their sleeves.
Terry Kath opens the album with the very soul-like Mississippi Delta City Blues, a song written in 1972 which shows off how great a rhythm guitarist he was. The brass doesn't overdo it, punctuating the verses in a manner reminiscent of James Brown's band - the whole song sounds a little like Brown's Papa Don't Take No Mess. Kath's other major writing contribution is Takin' It On Uptown, in which the band goes into power-trio mode and the horns aren't heard at all. He manages to look back to Jimi Hendrix and forward to Stevie Ray Vaughan at the same time.
Peter Cetera is relatively quiet on this album, mostly singing backup and playing some subdued bass. His one lead vocal, on the now-standard Baby What a Big Surprise, is enjoyable, and the song reminds me both of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Carl Wilson sings backup, and Lee Loughnane adds some very nice trumpet playing.
Robert Lamm has returned to form with two social-commentary songs. The man who once condemned the police in Someday, on CTA, now paints a sad but sympathetic portrait of an aging Policeman who "feeds the cat he lives with since his wife walked out the door/in nine years he'll retire with a pension....all the years and nothing to show." James Pankow adds a very subtle trombone solo and I LOVE THAT PERCUSSION!
Lamm really hits his stride on the second side with Vote for Me, a serious novelty song. It's a parody of politicians who make outlandish campaign promises (underwater trains? cars running on beer? cutting taxes in half?), then turn around and say "little I can promise, it's really up to you" and fleece the crowd for money. The gospel choir and organ just add to the fun. Hey, I bet he would have made a great President!
The horn players prove again that, as singers, they're great horn players. Both sound a little like Huey Lewis with a very bad hangover, particularly Pankow. (I like his song, though, and he even plays piano.) Lee Loughnane's This Time is a very sweet production that combines Three Dog Night with Pablo Cruise.* At least that's what I thought of it.
The nicest surprise on the album is the emergence of the Danny Seraphine-David "Hawk" Wolinski songwriting team, whose songs close both sides. Take Me Back to Chicago is a poignant reminiscence of the singer's childhood, looking back from the point of view of a tired adult. He mentions the lake and Tastee-Freez, but the Chicago references don't start until Chaka Khan shows up to trade lines with Robert at the end. ("Rush Street...CTA...North Side...South Side") The jazz chords on this song are very difficult to play, but add to the atmosphere.
And then there's their Little One, the saddest song on the album. I keep having to remind myself that Terry Kath didn't write it, but by the time the flugelhorn comes in, I'm inevitably crying my eyes out. I cried in 1978 and I cried the other day - the terrible irony of Kath singing "Don't live in fear of the future, for I will always be there" gets me every time. It's Chicago's version of John Lennon's Beautiful Boy - the kind of song that would be maudlin if real life hadn't intervened.
You probably know what happened after the release of XI in 1977. Terry Kath, the soul of the band, was killed in a gun accident in late January 1978, a loss the band wouldn't recover from for several years. You probably don't know that longtime producer James William Guercio was let go as well. Things wouldn't be the same afterwards.
(c) 2001 and 2004 Becky Banfield for Dos Gardenias Productions
*Yes, this is the source of the quote on the liner notes of the Rhino re-release of Chicago XI.