CD Review of The Best of Chicago 40th Anniversary Edition by Chicago
Recommended if you like
Blood Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, Sweet ’n Low saccharine sweetener
Label
Rhino
Chicago:
The Best of Chicago
40th Anniversary Edition

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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W
hile commercial statistics often reveal little more about a pop group than a propensity for blandness, in Chicago's case, when Billboard crowned the band the top-charting band of the 1970s it was because the music was innovative compared to a lot of the flotsam and jetsam working its way through record racks at the time. Unfortunately for Chicago, time waits for no one, and at some point between 25 or 6 to 4, the band's golden carriage turned into a pumpkin. They started out with a bang, putting out hot, horn-driven pop records featuring jazz flourishes and gorgeous arrangements that heavily featured the trombone – a difficult task for a band that counts commercial success among its objectives. (It figures that trombonist James Pankow wrote many of the songs and arranged them, too.) Alto Peter Cetera, when he was a co-lead vocalist (with baritone crooner Bobby Lamm) and making sterling harmonies with his bandmates, fronted an interesting band for a while. Listening to some of the early tunes, like "Questions 67 and 68," "25 or 6 to 4," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "Saturday in the Park," you hear a tight band driven by the enthusiasm of an all-hands-on-deck team loving their jobs. Driving, aggressive drumming on a Keith Moon scale kept cuts like "Make Me Smile" out of the pop mush-pot and squarely into the rock side of the ledger.

When Cetera took over as the main frontman, however, it all went downhill. In the band's second act, beginning in the mid-1980s when "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" hit the singles chart, horns were downplayed, synthesizers replaced humans, and Cetera turned the whole enterprise into a vehicle for milquetoast pop compositions like "Love Me Tomorrow," "Hard Habit to Break," and "You're the Inspiration." When Cetera finally left the band, they forgot to turn the lights out – and kept recording! Few people will remember the most recent junk that fills out the second disc of this set. Ironically, Lamm – who fans consider the moral compass of the band and who had reservations about Chicago's "hornless period" – stayed on and played his keyboards while Rome burned. Both Pankow and Lamm openly lament this period in liner-note interviews here, perfectly summed up with Pankow's commentary for "You're the Inspiration": "Sometimes, compromise is a drag."

The saddest marker of the band's recent output on this greatest-hits package is the track "Feel (w/Horns)," With horns? Oh my gosh. That's what made the band incredibly distinctive and popular in the first place. As in, the horns made the band – and yet they didn't bother calling the early hits "25 or 6 to 4 (w/Horns)" or "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (w/Horns)." That's like listing a B.B. King song as "Paying the Cost to be the Boss (w/Guitar)." Give Rhino credit for putting a good wrapper and excellent liner notes in this package. Ultimately, the music itself is a detailed documentary of a good band's downfall. One hit consistently left off all Chicago greatest-hits sets, "Thunder and Lightning," is left off here, too. Certainly one of the last seven of the 30 tracks on this set could have been left off in favor of that cut, one of the best hits of the late disco/post-disco era. You have Mojo's permission to buy the set and use Disc Two as an attractive drink coaster for your Chicago listening party.

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