CD Review of Stone of Sisyphus (Chicago XXXII) by Chicago
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The Sons of Champlin, Peter Cetera, Journey
Label
Rhino
Chicago:
Stone of Sisyphus
(Chicago XXXII)

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he 1980s, to put it very mildly, were not kind to classic rock artists. The ones who didn’t kill themselves or burn out completely during the ‘70s often found it next to impossible to fit in with the trends of the decade – hell, even Dylan took a spill into the synth patch. Of the acts who managed to successfully re-invent themselves, however, none did so more successfully – or for as long – as Chicago, the one-time “rock band with horns” that grabbed the power-ballad brass ring and guarded it Gollum-style, scoring a string of multiplatinum albums and hit singles that featured very few horns (and even less rock & roll).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the ‘90s: When the band’s 17th studio album, Twenty 1, was released in early 1991, radio and retail took a big fat pass. Chicago had scored the most-played single of the year in 1989 (it was the Diane Warren-penned “Look Away,” and it’s still every bit as crappy as you remember), and they’d made sure to stuff their new record with more of the same glossy love songs that had kept them commercially relevant well past their original late-‘70s sell-by date – and grunge wasn’t even around yet, so what happened?

The glib answer, of course, is that Twenty 1 sucked – which it did, but if you apply the same standards to Chicago 18 and Chicago 19, they sucked too. You can pin some of the blame on the shifting marketplace, but not all of it; by all rights, there should have been plenty of airspace for Chicago ballads in the spring of ’91. There weren’t any easy answers for the band, and what made Twenty 1’s critical and commercial failure all the more galling was the fact that they’d battled their label and their management over the album’s strict adherence to the same creatively bankrupt formula they’d used in the ‘80s. Where their handlers saw dollar signs, the band – or some of them, anyway – saw straitjackets. On the promotional tour for Twenty 1, Chicago openly refused to play songs from the new record – and when it came time to put together a follow-up, they resolved to keep the suits out of it, and record the album they wanted to hear.

Now, 15 years after it was recorded, that album is finally reaching store shelves. You can guess how well the experiment went.

Chicago

Since being rejected by Warner Bros. and falling off the release schedule in 1994, Stone of Sisyphus has acquired legendary status among Chicago fans. Widely bootlegged almost from the beginning, the album has been the subject of constant speculation for over a decade. When Chicago left Warners following Sisyphus’ dismissal, the band took its first 14 releases and reissued them under its own Chicago Records imprint – a label that eventually went on to release other band-related product, but curiously skipped over the one thing fans were actually asking for. By the end of the decade, the group had sold its back catalog to Warner-owned Rhino, where a seemingly endless succession of increasingly redundant compilations – usually featuring a pair of new tracks, specially recorded to soak long-suffering fans – trickled out over the next decade and change. (Under the band’s policy of counting every piece of Chicago-branded product as a legitimate album, its last two collections of original material have been titled Twenty 1 and XXX. That’s nine compilations in 15 years, with nothing new in between.)

Some of the Sisyphus tracks saw official release during this era, mainly on overseas collections or the box set released by Rhino, meaning that if a fan was willing to pony up enough money – and own enough duplicate versions of “If You Leave Me Now” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” – he or she could cobble together about half of the album that almost was. Now those fans have the opportunity to buy the songs one more time – well, most of them, anyway. Thanks to another one of the lamentable creative decisions that Chicago has unfortunately become known for, Sisyphus’ original closing track, “Get On This,” has been excised in favor of a handful of demos that range from dull (“Mah Jongg,” “Let’s Take a Lifetime”) to painfully bad (“Love Is Forever,” a track so bad it was left off Twenty 1).

Why the hatchet job? Only the band really knows for sure, but it seems suspicious that “Get On This” was one of two tracks written by the band’s former guitarist, Dawayne Bailey, who was fired shortly after Sisyphus was mothballed. Notwithstanding its willingness to trot out minor variations on the same moldy setlist every summer, Chicago has never been comfortable with its past; mentions of departed founding members Peter Cetera and Danny Seraphine are avoided whenever possible, and Bailey’s unceremonious firing remains a point of contention for fans even now. If the album’s other Bailey contribution hadn’t been the title track, it isn’t hard to imagine that it would have been lopped off the running order, too.

Which is a shame, really, because it’s Bailey’s songs, in large part, that helped push Stone of Sisyphus out of the middle of the road and into mythic territory for fans who listened to pap like “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” and wept for the days of “25 or 6 to 4.” All the years of debate have cloaked the album in an impossible shroud of expectations – to hear some who’ve heard it talk, you’d think it represented the second coming of the band’s early years. It doesn’t – it doesn’t even come close – but pieces of it are a far cry from the Chicago you heard in the ‘80s, and Bailey’s songs helped set the tone for that transformation, particularly “Get On This,” a screaming rocker the likes of which the band hadn’t even bothered to attempt since…well, possibly never.

Happily, even without “Get On This,” Stone of Sisyphus still has plenty to offer – loads more than 2006’s moribund XXX, certainly. Of primary interest to longtime fans will be Robert Lamm’s contributions; after years of being rolled out of storage once or twice an album to make a half-hearted cameo appearance, the artist who once provided the band with its social conscience finally reappears. The Lamm-penned “All the Years” is a bitter, fire-bellied kiss-off to those who worked to keep the band in the middle of the road, and “Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed Again” is a divorce-fueled rap track that serves as both the most interesting and most potentially embarrassing thing Chicago has committed to tape since “Free Form Guitar.” But even on the stuff he didn’t write, Lamm casts a large shadow – producer Peter Wolf put him behind the microphone for a large percentage of the album, and his vocals boast surprising power and grit.

Also noteworthy are Bill Champlin’s contributions – his “Plaid” paints a heartbreakingly prescient self-portrait of an artist who traded creative latitude for financial stability, and although “Cry for the Lost” is a repurposed Fixx track, “The Show Must Go On” serves up a sweetly triumphant final note, complete with appropriately busy brass and woodwinds. Even Jason Scheff is kept mostly in check here; though he provides the album’s falsest notes (the Father’s Day card “Bigger Than Elvis” is mawkish, and the abstinence ballad “Let’s Take a Lifetime” is simply awful), he also teams up with Champlin to provide a nifty slice of machine-driven funk with “Mah Jongg.”

The album’s biggest stars, appropriately, are the horns. After a decade of being padlocked out of the studio, they resurface here with gusto; even on otherwise predictable ballads like “Here With Me (A Candle for the Dark),” they pop up in unexpected places, and on the uptempo tracks, they’re simply on fire. Though Stone of Sisyphus is certainly guilty of leaning too heavily on early ‘90s synths and programmed beats – something Rhino’s reissue team surprisingly neglected to fiddle with – the horn charts provide a measure of vindication for fans who never stopped believing that the Chicago they loved in the ‘60s and ‘70s was still alive.

Of course, 15 years – and one half-assed reissue – are a lot to put between those fans and an album that might have turned a few heads when it was originally recorded. Since being slapped on the wrist for Sisyphus, Chicago has shown a resolute unwillingness to budge the slightest bit from the dwindling patch of green it occupies in the middle of the road – and anyone who thinks that’s going to change would do well to remember that, even given all these years of hindsight, and a long-overdue green light from the company that originally put this album on ice, they still managed to bungle its release. It’ll sell a few copies and show up on merch tables this summer, but it’s nothing more than a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been – and the future, unfortunately, probably holds nothing but more repackaged bits and pieces of the old catalog. So many lost possibilities, so little time.

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