CHICAGO — Chicago 18 (review)

CHICAGO — Chicago 18 album cover Album · 1986 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
2.5/5 ·
Chicapah
I'll start this review with a brief personal story. ("Do you have to?" you may ask, but when you get to be my age and you've racked up anecdotes like billiards you'll feel compelled to share them at the drop of a hat, too. Indulge me.) I played rock & roll guitar professionally (i.e. starved for my art) for well over a decade, then cried uncle, quit the biz and got a real job to support my growing family. After about 5 years of withdrawal I was recruited out of retirement and became a weekend rocker in a combo with some old pals for the extra moolah and an occasional thrill. One of those thrills came around about twice a year when the band got to play for lavish arts & craft shindigs held at the Texas state fairgrounds. Large stage and lights, amps on 10, huge sound system and a sizeable audience. (Beat the heck out of playing for Beth & Derrick's drunken wedding reception at the Elk's lodge, that's for sure.) Anyway, once upon a time while waiting to go on stage a tune I'd never heard before got piped through the PA at full blast. It was ridiculously fat, over-produced, pompous, indulgent, arrogant and completely over-the-top. In other words:

I loved it.

That was in 1987 and jazz/rock fusion wasn't just dead in the USA, it was putrefying in its moldy grave. I ran out front to the board and asked the sound engineer what he'd just played and he told me it was Chicago. Wha? You could've knocked me over with a feather. Once an avid CTA fan, I had lost touch with the group for a very long time and had no inkling as to what they were up to other than rolling my eyes at the obligatory Top 40 ballads they'd been cranking out like a Detroit assembly line. I procured a copy of this, their 18th LP soon after and have plopped it on the turntable from time to time ever since. If there was a category called jazzy big band rock fusion pop (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) this album would be in the upper echelon. Cheesy crooner Peter Cetera had just left the group to go solo on the AOR charts and evidently his exuberant replacement and sound- alike, bassist Jason Scheff, invigorated and electrified the rest of the ensemble and the result is a record that's admittedly slicker than the wake of the Exxon Valdez, but full of a brand of high-fidelity heat and excitement that was hard to come by in those vacant, MTV virus-riddled days. Don't get me wrong, kids. It ain't "Bitches Brew" by any stretch but anything that even vaguely resembled fusion was welcome in that dark age.

The opener, "Niagara Falls," is a great example of what I'm talking about. Producer and hit- maker extraordinaire David Foster was evidently trying to out-Spector Phil Spector on this, his last at the helm of Chicago, and big ain't the word for the massive, towering production techniques in play here. Danny Seraphine's programmed but still dynamic drums with their kickass accents and the forceful mix of bright synthesizers with the always-crisp horn section is devastatingly flash. Their glossy vocal harmonies make the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound like a folk duo and the keyboard effect in the mid section makes it sound as if they hauled in the world's heaviest Kalimba for the lead. Call me crazy for ear candy but it's pretty amazing stuff to witness. The sugary "Forever" follows and it's one of those numbers from keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm that, despite the hot undercurrent throbbing below the half-time melody line and a ton of depth, is basically the same kind of embroidered love song he's been penning since high school.

The track I heard that day on the fairgrounds was "If She Would Have Been Faithful" and it's still a killer cut. After a sparse beginning the number quickly grows into a gargantuan piece in which no grandiose aspect is restrained. The vocals are stacked to the nth degree and they toss in some engaging kicks throughout as they play around the beat cleverly. And, though they didn't write this one, the payback's-a-bitch lyrics are cool. "If she would have been faithful/if she could have been true/then I would've been cheated/I would never know real love/I would have missed out on you," they sing. Then they crash right into a wham- bam-thank-you-ma'am version of their classic "25 or 6 to 4" and it's Katy bar the door, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There's a palpable metallic taste to savor (due in no small part to guest Steve Lukather's smokin' guitar) and the whole thing's as punchy as Evander Holyfield. The horns are so far up front here that they almost deliver a knockout blow to your speakers. This sizzles like frying fatback and is a rare instance of improving on something that was impressive to begin with. In fact, I can hardly stand to listen to the original any more. Yowza!

"Will You Still Love Me" is next and, yes, it's a sappy power ballad but instead of dense guitars you get deep, heavily-layered synths and strings. Gotta give 'em props for not holding back, though. There's nothing weak about it and it's very in-your-face aggressive at times. I've heard worse #3 hit singles. "Over and Over" is pop R&B typical of the 80s, very formula and very forgettable. I've been a follower of Bill Champlin since his early "Sons of Champlin" days when that eclectic band was creating some intriguing jazz rock/fusion music that was just odd enough to deny them a wide audience (but musicians adored them). His "It's Alright" tune begins with a wicked synthesizer note and then jumps right into a hard driving beat as his soulful voice rings out loud and clear. It's nothing spectacular but the rhythm never lets up for a moment and you might be tempted to grab your girl and cut the rug while it plays. Nothing wrong with that. There's a short, unlisted coda that's identified as "Free Flight" in the liner notes and it's nothing but super-tight horns put together by trombonist James Pankow. Unfortunately, that's the end of the good stuff.

They wisely placed the weakest material on the rear end of the proceedings, starting with a faceless, unremarkable contemporary lite-rock ditty called "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Champlin's "I Believe" is yet another power ballad that sounds like an outtake from Earth, Wind & Fire but it lacks the wow factor that made his "After the Love is Gone" such a winner for those boys years earlier. The bandwagon that began rolling with Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" video didn't pass by these dudes unnoticed and "One More Day" is a blatant rip-off borne of that same ilk. Pankow's horn arrangement is notable, however, and the not-surprising inclusion of a children's chorale at the end gives the song a slight boost.

I'm positive that many of you purists would desperately fight nausea if you sat through this album and I totally understand. The word "jazz" hardly applies. In many ways this is a guilty pleasure of mine and not suited to everyone's taste. But I love it when music is done up BIG and there's no denying that Chicago pushed the limits as far as they could production-wise on this record and filled up a lot of space. In the latter part of the 80s fusion was a four-letter word in the biz and the general public wanted to see their music more than they wanted to listen to it so BIG was the only alternative I had to the fluffy hair bands and the techno-rock rubes that ruled the airwaves. Overblown stuff like this was all some of us had. I won't insult you by calling it great so "good but not essential" pretty much covers it for me.

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