"Now" - Chicago XXXVI
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NOW (Chicago XXXVI) is the band's first new album of original material since the release of XXX in 2006, and once again these icons offer their signature fiery, jazz-rooted brass arrangements over slick pop rock songs.
When Chicago exploded onto the music scene with their stellar 1969 double-LP debut, Chicago Transit Authority, the band's innovative fusion of up-front horns in a rock 'n' roll context and impeccable pop sensibilities was an instant smash. According to Billboard chart history and stats, Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys as the most successful American rock band of all time, in terms of both album and singles sales. Judged by album sales alone, as certified by the R.I.A.A., the band is still among the Top Ten best-selling U.S. groups in history.
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Top Customer Reviews
I was surprised to see "Now" coming down the pike, and without hesitation I bought it. I wanted to see where the band is at, now. Meanwhile, I finally went back and bought all of their albums beginning with 1969's "Chicago Transit Authority". I believe the first Chicago album I ever bought was 1986's "Chicago 18" (I know, I know, why, right? Well it was 1986, and I was only 14! What did I know?!)
Prior to making this review I took weeks to listen to every Chicago album in chronological order to see how they began, changed, changed again, and where they are now in comparison. I skipped their live albums and compilation albums and holiday albums and stuck with just their studio albums.
First, the biggest change with "Now" is the absence of Bill Champlin who began appearing with the band on 1982's "Chicago 16". Second, in listening to all of Chicago's albums I am keenly aware of how important Robert Lamm was to the band in the beginning and how he somehow became sidelined, especially after the death of Terry Kath in 1978. Third, it is my stubborn observational opinion after listening to all of Chicago's albums that after Kath's death the band changed and never returned to their 'glory days' which I consider to be 1969-1977. To me, the band's albums during that time were pretty damn strong, consistent and, overall, very good.
So, "Now"? Well, it does sort of have a 70's vibe to it. It does feel like the famous Chicago horns are more front and center than they have been since, say, 1979's "Chicago 13". Lyrically, there are more politically themed songs than any Chicago album since "Chicago XI". Robert Lamm is more present here. The album is produced by the band and not David Foster. So, it would seem on the surface that "Now" would be a step in the right direction, and it is. But, like so many other bands/artists, Chicago doesn't quite hit "Now" out of the park. I would like to see what they do if they had to make a few more albums in quick succession to see if "Now" could be improved upon. Still, it's slightly better than "Stone Of Sisyphus" and "XXX" and better than "Chicago Twenty 1".
I agree with others that "Now" suffers from slick production (again). It also suffers from the band not playing together in a studio (like the good old days). "Now" comes off as adult contemporary jazz pop. There were some songs that I felt were pretty good like "More Will Be Revealed", "Love Lives On", "Something's Coming, I Know" and "Naked In The Garden Of Allah". In fact, "Love Lives On" has the most potential to be a top 40 hit and is very reminiscent of their 80's ballads.
Anyway, I would consider myself a belated Chicago fan. I can find things to like on each of their albums for the most part. I have never seen them live. I think, after listening to all of their albums, that I really enjoy "Chicago Transit Authority" as likely their best work--a stand alone work, in fact.
So, here's how "Now" compares to Chicago's other works:
1969 Chicago Transit Authority: Five Stars
1970 II: Four and a Half Stars
1971 III: Four and a Half Stars
1972 V: Four and a Half Stars
1973 VI: Four and a Half Stars
1974 VII: Four and a Half Stars
1975 VIII: Four Stars
1976 X: Four Stars
1977 XI: Four Stars
1978 Hot Streets: Two and a Half Stars
1979 13: Two and a Half Stars
1980 XIV: One Star
1982 16: Two and a Half Stars
1984 17: Four Stars
1986 18: Three and a Half Stars
1988 19: Two and a Half Stars
1991 Twenty 1: One Star
2006 XXX: Two and a Half Stars
2008 Stone Of Sisyphus: Two and a Half Stars
2014 Now: Three Stars
I've seen the guys in concert 3 times in the last 4 years (the FRONT row in Knoxville Sept 2013) and it's amazing what they can still do in a live setting. With the 4 original members now in their upper 60's, certain concessions have to be made. I mentioned the vocal sharing which is one thing. Walt and Jimmy don't play every tour date and Nick Lane and Ray Hermann fill in quite well. The live set list often leaves out an intermission but there are transitions in the show to allow downtime during the drum solo, to set up and break down the acoustic set, and long instrumentals. Lou Pardini maybe doesn't have the writing chops that Bill Champlin had, but Lou's voice is smoother and more appealing to my ear. And Lou's happy, easy-going attitude is a welcome change in the band dynamic. The new recorded music reflects all these changes.
Robert Lamm continues to be a bottomless pit of music and arrangements. For those reviewers lamenting that we need more Robert, you should check out his most recent solo effort which came out just before Chicago started on this album, "Living Proof". It is exceptional. But Robert has made it clear over time how important the band is over any solo effort of his. Other members have made decisions to be involved in the writing, arranging, and performing to the degree they choose now given their home life, health, and family considerations. There were times during the making of 36 that required some recording off the road where because of those decisions, the band principals let other musicians record parts as noted in the liner writeup.
Finally, I'm old enough to have followed several bands and solo acts over the arc of their careers. NONE have ever stood still and written/performed the same type of music during the course of that time. Musical styles have ebbed and flowed; song writers grow up and mature; life experiences offer new opportunities to express; the message and priorities change. Some acts I've stayed with the whole time - Chicago is one of those. Some acts I chose to let go of and wished them well as my tastes grew and changed also. But Chicago weathered the shifting changes in the music industry and come out the other side leading and setting an example for the future. They are proof there are alternatives to over-produced, voice-tuned, pretty boy-or-girl, junk sounds out there now. These are songs with a variety of styles, melodies you can remember, lyrics that are positive and thoughtful, and arrangements that feature real musicianship on real instruments.
36 is an outstanding album that reflects the skill and craft of the current band members. I hope there is more original music in the future.