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READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 12
Well, maybe it's not the BEST of 1969, but it's definitely the BIGGEST. Be careful about putting it down - drop it and you can kiss your toes goodbye.Best song: POEM 58
Track listing: 1) Introduction; 2) Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is; 3) Beginnings; 4) Questions 67 & 68; 5) Listen; 6) Poem 58; 7) Free Form Guitar; 8) South California Purples; 9) I'm A Man; 10) Prologue, August 29, 1968; 11) Someday (August 29, 1968); 12) Liberation.
A fun fun fun debut double album - once you get over the idea that there's not a single original idea on it. It took the band quite a bit of time to throw all of this stuff together so that it would look like a true castle of steel and concrete rather than a bunch of disconnected slums; and still this did not save them from being occasionally perceived as "The Ones Whose Identity Is Hard To Perceive". Yeah, well, so Chicago stole their sound from Blood, Sweat & Tears (chronologically, at least: I believe the band was formed before BS&T, but only managed to put out their first record after BS&T already established the jazz-rock basis), Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Miles Davis, you name it, we got it, and if you want a good excuse for not having to sit through all of this album's four sides more than once, just dismiss it as a mediocre take on other people's ideas and be done with it.That's one possible way of looking at it for sure. The other way is much better - when you actually realize how much melodic talent these guys used to have and how much instrumental skill they had to back it up. I don't mean to say that the album never ever gets tedious: for one thing, the average song length on here is seven to eight minutes, and that's a double LP for you, need I add more? But the boring and tedious is always easier to tolerate when it's mixed with the exciting and captivating, and in terms of absolute quantity, there's enough catchy hooks, memorable riffs, driving jams, and diverse approaches here to fill up all the empty spaces in your head if you still have some left. And a special bonus for those who happen to arrive at this album from the other end of the chronological scale: not a single friggin' ballad anywhere in sight. Hard to believe, yes, but there actually used to be a time Chicago didn't really care about ballads - reason #1 to call the late Sixties The Golden Age of music. The best thing about these lengthy compositions is that they're all groove-based. And, as everyone knows, in order to set a good groove, you don't need the song to pack a ton of hooks. If you're talented enough, you can just pick one - make sure it's a really good one, though - and build up a real powerful instrumental jam around it, and who knows, it might work. It's a risky business for sure, I mean, because if you ain't smart and professional enough, you're probably gonna reduce it to the aural equivalent of a Russian village toilet in the end, but these guys were smart and professional, and besides, they were taking such a huge gamble that there was no way they could possibly lose. And it shows already in the 'Introduction', with its anthemic opening brass lines. The song isn't a masterpiece - it isn't supposed to be, since it has the predictably limited function of introducing the band - but it's certainly an impressive opening, and then you get the guys moving from slower, gentler brass-dominated instrumental sections into a rougher section dominated by Terry Kath's excellent soloing. From the very first notes, they seem to be telling you that they're gonna be big, chutzpah, and that there's absolutely no way you can stop them unless somebody outlaws the trombone as unhygienic. Not too many bands around the time would put a track called 'Introduction' on their debut album, wasting precious space; this is clearly a challenge to the supremacy of Sgt Pepper, and, in fact, the introduction to that album can look quite pathetic next to Chicago's - puny, with just one short brass solo passage and next to no true ambition at all. It also certainly takes more than just a bunch of dunces to make a track like 'Beginnings' get a true epic feel. Here, they show that they know how to capture the listener through gradual development and clever use of crescendos, going from a relatively simple "new-morning"-style acoustic and brass arrangement to an all-out Brass Reign Supreme, propped by a wild Latin rhythm - making it so good that I sort of understand how they just kept going through inertia after the brass had already died down and only the percussion kept going on, even if that inevitably extended the song by an extra minute and a half that could have been saved for better things. But they needed extra space to cool it down, I guess. Granted, they occasionally do go overboard. As good as Terry Kath is - and he manages to combine the styles of at least several notorious guitarists of his era, sounding like Hendrix at one moment and then like Clapton the next moment and then like Alvin Lee or like Jorma Kaukonen - I believe that too many of these jams are based on licks and phrases that repeat themselves. Maybe he should have been alternating these styles from song to song rather than trying to play something like "the average" of all of 'em within each and every one of them. As it is, I would advise concentrating primarily on 'Poem 58', a terrific eight-minute mostly-instrumental which can satisfy both the jazz-wank-fan and the wild rock'n'roller in you, and I didn't even begin to mention Cream and James Brown yet. (And the brief vocal section at the end almost presages classic psych-era Funkadelic - and these guys are whiter than white!). On the other hand, when Kath does try to just go overboard with wild feedback outbursts a la Axis: Bold As Love on 'Free Form Guitar', it turns out to be the album's only disaster. Guitar feedback and wild wild inhuman noises coming from your amplifiers are good when they're emphasizing a song; when taken on their own for about seven minutes - and smack dab in the middle of a normal melodic record at that - they become really excruciating. Of course, this is not Metal Machine Music, but at least for that album, you kinda knew what you were going to get. Here, it's completely unexpected, and its only purpose is to say: "I can play like Jimi Hendrix. Sort of". And the way I see it, not even Jimi's own endorsement of Kath's playing can justify such an approach. This is probably why ending the record with the fourteen-minute jam 'Liberation' wasn't such a good idea; the song doesn't get us anywhere we haven't already been over the preceding hour, yet it is the lengthiest of the bunch. I'd rather have it somewhere near the beginning of the record, as from a technical point of view it actually has some of Terry's best solos (and with the wah-wah at that), however, after an hourlong sequence of these jams you just really can't concentrate too well. Another minor misfire is that, of course, they just have to give the drummer a shot at a solo passage as well - almost ruining the excellent bluesy jam 'I'm A Man' (nothing to do with the Muddy Waters tune, though - rather a rearrangement of the Spencer Davis mini-classic). Still, while the low points are to be expected, the high points are surprisingly numerous - put that goddamn logical accent on the word 'surprisingly', as it really accounts for the relatively high rating on here. All of the shorter songs are very very nice: 'Does Anybody Know What Time It Is' is an endearing sing-along jazzy shuffle with a fine-placed classical piano introduction; 'Questions 67 & 68' is a fine stab at Beatlesque pop (a little reminiscent of 'Magical Mystery Tour' the way it's all built around uplifting piano/brass interplay); 'Listen' is a well-crafted blues-rocker with one of the band's finest basslines ever, and it doesn't get much better than the simple, but convincing ascending bluesy hook of 'South California Purples'. Speaking of 'Purples', that song has yet another Magical Mystery Tour association - hear them sing 'I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together' right out of the blue after the solo. And, as usual, it's hardly just a bizarre coincidence. The Sgt Pepper analogy with 'Introduction', the arrangement similarities on several of the songs, this odd 'I Am The Walrus' quote, the obvious diversity of the proceedings that hints at the White Album, all of this means that Chicago actually did think of themselves, or at least were initially marketed as, the one true American response to the Beatles. As with every other such attempt, the results turned out to be unsettling - primarily because of the crucial differences in the soil - but for a brief shining moment, it looked as if Chicago were at least going to be placed in the same ballpark in terms of artistic success.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Whoever was the murderous, treacherous, snake-tongued, vulture-headed rogue villain that persuaded Chicago to make the "double LP" format their default one should be forced to listen to this album for the rest of his sweet short life, even if it turns out to be somebody from the band itself (and I'm sure he will). I hope he gets what he deserves. This isn't a bad album as such; it's nowhere near as diverse as Transit Authority, as Chicago decided that from now on, everything must sound like their hit singles. But listening to the guys go over the same groove - over and over and over again - for sixty seven bleeding minutes automatically turns my guts upside down. After the required three listens, I still can't distinguish between the good and the bad, and if I sit through this for the fourth time, I'm afraid to have a permanent disrupture of that hearing nerve.So excuse me if I'm going to review this record without possessing a "deep" and "thorough" understanding of it. Not that there's a lot to understand, mind you. There are no lengthy jams or experimental pieces any more - gone, basta, adios! Too bad, I almost miss having something like 'Free Form Guitar' on here. A couple of songs still crash the five-minute barrier, but these are exceptions; more often, songs are organized into "cycles" or "movements" (sporting pretentious titles like 'Suite For A Girl In Buchannon'), with each individual one pretty short. Since it all sounds the same, though, that hardly solves the problem. Worse, Terry Kath is drastically underrepresented: for some reason, the band decided that their horns were the main ingredient, and so horns are everywhere and at the center of everything. Well, so are Robert Lamm's flimsy keyboards, too. Fortunately, they haven't yet submerged themselves in the balladeering marsh that would eventually engulf them; only a couple songs on here are actual ballads, and they're not at all bad. Hey, individually, there's not a single bad song on here, you know? At this point, their jazzy formula still worked fine, allowing them not to recycle melodies and not really lower themselves to that common denominator we all love to quote. But everything here is like a variation on the same theme, aarrgh, even when they bring out the occasional orchestration. Let me exercise my memory, just for the fun of it, and try to see if there's something I can separate from this bloated, wildly padded mess. '25 Or 6 To 4' is, I think, a pretty good rocker, where Terry is allowed to solo at will, and he rocks the house down with fast emotional Claptonesque runs that please my heart. So I'll nominate this the album's high point. Then there's the album opener, 'Movin' In', which is memorable simply because it's the first song - the model for ninety percent of the rest. An inspiring, uplifting, whatever-you-name-it horn riff, a catchy soulful vocal melody, and wimpy 'we know it, yes we know it!' backing harmonies. I'll take it and leave the rest as derivative. Okay? Oh, did I say there were no "bad" songs on the album? Well, that loathsome 'It Better End Soon' four-movement piece comes close, mainly because of the cheesy "look-at-us-we're-expressing-social-protest" lyrics. Geez, even at this early point these guys were commercialized, hit-oriented fodder, and they knew it - otherwise why would they want to re-orient their second album exclusively at hit-single-quality material? Don't tell me all their early albums like this went platinum just because the common people sympathized with the band's independent artistic vision. This is some meticulously calculated stuff, if you ask me, destined to make Chicago millionnaires, and all this 'I can't stand it no more!' shenanigan, expressed in the most banal way possible at that, simply gets on my nerves. A collective Marvin Gaye these fellows definitely are not. Although there are some effective guitar and Tull-like flute parts in this suite, I give you that. The hit singles from here were 'Make Me Smile', which is a corny, fun, upbeat jazz-popster, all sunshine and laughter and horns that go whoah-whoah; and, alas, the one true ballad on the album - 'Colour My World', a so-so, but tolerable, R&B sendup with a simplistic piano melody and lotsa atmosphere. Who knows, maybe if that song never had charted, these guys wouldn't want to saddle the world with their endless balladeering for years to go - but chart it did, and convinced Chicago that sentimental fluffy soft-rock balladry was THE way to go. 'Where Do We Go From Here' indeed. That's about all you're gonna hear from me about the record anyway. Never thought there'd be a time when I'd be at a total loss speaking about a sixty-plus minute double album with a whole lot of songs on it, but apparently there's a time for everything.
READER COMMENTS SECTION