by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
One Clear Voice (1995, River North)
Leaving his longtime home of Warner Brothers for the small indie outfit River North, Cetera’s follow-up to World Falling Down isn’t anywhere nearly as good as its predecessor. The disc thankfully sticks to the lite balladry and adult-contemporary pop of the last record, but the material is considerably spottier and the album also suffers from feeling under-baked, not in the least since one song is a questionable cover of Abba’s “S.O.S.,” re-worked here as a duet country singer Ronna Reeves, while another is a completely unnecessary new recording of Cetera’s old Chicago song “Happy Man.” But for every dud like “The Road to Camelot,” there’s a half-decent tune like the tasteful title track, and the disc also sports one of Cetera’s more fun and left-field hit ballads in “(I Wanna Take) Forever Tonight,” penned by former Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen (“All By Myself,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Make Me Lose Control”) and performed as a duet with, unusually enough, television actress Crystal Bernard (best known as Helen Chappell on the long-running sitcom Wings), who it turns out is actually a very good and appealing singer and would go on to record two underrated albums of her own for River North.
Another Perfect World (2001, Navarre)
Cetera’s most recent solo album of new non-seasonal material to date is a reunion with Solitude/Solitaire producer Michael Omartian. The material is both considerably more appealing and infectious than most of the material from One Clear Voice, and songs like “I’m Coming Home,” “Perfect World,” “Just Like Love,” and the vaguely-Beatlesque ballad “Feels Like Rain” (fittingly, Cetera also covers the Beatles here, via an excellent, if gentle, remake of “It’s Only Love”) all hearken back to the best moments from World Falling Down. While the album’s certainly not as hard-rocking as his self-titled solo debut, Cetera does nonetheless rock here, albeit gently, in a way that he hasn’t on most of his other solo albums, and the synths of his ‘80s discs have been replaced here with lots of guitars and live drums and, on “Perfect World,” even a horn section, recalling the singer’s days in Chicago. Song for song, it’s his best album since World Falling Down.
Chicago XXX (2006, Rhino)
Chicago’s self-described “thirtieth” album (their first album of new material in eleven years and their first of original material since 1991’s Twenty 1; the band had kept the royalties pouring in in the interim by releasing a stream of compilations, seasonal records, and live discs) is unfortunately quite disappointing. The band has unexpectedly brought in Jay DeMarcus from country group Rascal Flatts to produce them, as strange a choice of producer as the band has made yet. DeMarcus is as hands-on as David Foster had been, co-writing most of the material (“Where Were You” being the best of his co-writes with the band), playing multiple instruments, and even bringing in the rest of Rascal Flatts to serve as duet partners on “Love Will Come Back.” (Another country artist, Shelley Fairchild, is jarringly also brought in as a duet partner on the track “Why Can’t We.”) But DeMarcus is not as natural a match for the band as Foster, and it shows in the way that the disc opens with a “single mix” of “Feel” that is basically the same as the album version that closes the disc but without the horns – which, mind you, is the band’s musical trademark! The disc is also weighed down by its sequencing, a long string of ballads in the middle third of the disc derailing the disc’s momentum and making the listener anxious for the next up-tempo track. It’s telling that the two best moments here – both of them also ironically featuring a cameo from a different former lead singer of Toto (Bobby Kimball on one and Joseph Williams on the other) – are also the ones that the band themselves seems to have had the most involvement in writing and making, and “Caroline” and the first-rate power ballad “King of What Might Have Been” go a long way towards making up for the hit-and-miss quality of the rest of the disc.
Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus (2008, Rhino)
Not so much a new album as a very belated release of an unreleased archival item, Stone of Sisyphus was actually recorded all the way back in 1993 and inexplicably rejected by Warner Brothers. (This is especially ironic when you consider that their next album was a full disc of big-band covers!) Sisyphus finds the band working with the criminally-underrated Peter Wolf (not to be confused with the J. Geils Band frontman of the same name), who had produced a vast array of hits for Survivor, Jefferson Starship, Wang Chung, the Commodores, and Go West. Wolf doesn’t actually depart too much from the winning brand of soft-rock that the band had cut under David Foster’s direction (this disc is much more akin to the Foster albums than the two Nevison-helmed records), except to give the band the freedom to experiment more – and, of course, emphasize the horns again. The experiments don’t always work (namely, Lamm’s ill-advised rapping on “Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed”), but the heavy groove of the title cut (easily the most jazz-tinged side the band has recorded since the early ‘70s) and the Go West-like funk of “Mah Jong,” “All the Years,” and Champlin’s slinky “Cry for the Lost” work stunningly well, while the band continues to prove post-Cetera that it still has a knack for great ballads on cuts like Scheff’s “Let’s Take a Lifetime” and the Pankow/Lamm co-write “Here with Me (A Candle for the Dark).” But the most goose-bump-inducing track of all has to be the utterly gorgeous and lightly country-tinged ballad “Bigger Than Elvis,” which is a tear-jerking tribute penned by Jason Scheff about his father, a former bass player for Presley, and featuring the Jordanaires (Presley’s backing singers) on backup vocals. Only someone with a heart of stone could resist tearing up upon hearing the chorus of this song. You really can’t help but wonder what in the world Warner Brothers was thinking when they turned this record down. Not only is it easily the band’s best album since Chicago 17, you could even make a case that it’s the best thing they’ve done since the Seventies.
Chicago XXXV: The Nashville Sessions (2013, Chicago II)
As if the band hadn’t already done enough to diminish its brand over the prior two decades by releasing a seemingly endless stream of compilations, live discs, and Christmas records to keep the product coming in spite of very little new material actually being written, it succumbs to the most irritating of all classic-rocker clichés by recording an entire album of re-recordings of their biggest hits. It’s perfectly listenable, but it’s also thoroughly unnecessary and distasteful. Avoid.
Chicago XXXVI: Now (2014, Frontiers)
Most of the band’s post-Cetera output has suffered from producers who simply didn’t gel with the band, aside from perhaps Stone of Sisyphus’ guiding hand Peter Wolf, and the band wisely opts this time around to produce itself, with Hank Lindeman assisting (thankfully, Linderman doesn’t try to integrate himself into the proceedings the way Jay DeMarcus did on Chicago XXX and contributes only minimally to the writing and playing credits). This means that the band is free to be itself again (heck, even Lee Loughnane gets in on the writing again for the first time since the ‘70s), and it shows from the very opening bars of the disc, which find the horns (and the band’s R&B influences) returning in a monster-sized way, the deliciously soulful “Now” even calling to mind Earth, Wind & Fire (fittingly, the legendarary R&B group’s bassist Verdine White makes a cameo on the track). Lamm’s “More Will Be Revealed” could nearly be mistaken for a Paul Carrack record, while “Free at Last” and “Watching All the Colors” both sound as if they were written during the band’s early-‘70s commercial peak (to the extent that you keep expecting Peter Cetera’s voice to pop up on the latter cut), and “Something’s Coming, I Know” was co-written by America’s Gerry Beckley. There are some experiments that don’t work (namely, the Indian-flavored “Naked in the Garden of Allah”) and other songs that are pure cheese (especially “America,” which is about as ham-fisted as your typical latter-day Neil Young protest song), so the album, refreshing though it is, stops shy of reaching the greatness of Stone of Sisyphus, but this is second only to that album as the band’s post-‘80s outing. It’s nice to have the band back to its old self again.
The number of Chicago compilations to choose from is rather dizzying, but most of them only cover a small amount of ground and can be easily dismissed. If you’re exclusively interested in the band’s earliest, more jazz-oriented material before the days of ballads like “If You Leave Me Now,” then your best bet is to stick with the band’s very first – and still most well-known – hits package, 1975’s Chicago IX – Chicago’s Greatest Hits, memorably sporting a painting of the band in painter’s gear and swinging from a scaffold. The eleven cuts (nine of them Top Ten hits) range from 1969’s “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (both of which have sadly been edited down by over a minute) to 1974’s “Wishing You Were Here,” “Call on Me,” and “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long),” which means that such late-‘70s hits like “Old Days,” “If You Leave Me Now,” and “Baby, What a Big Surprise” are missing, but it’s still a rock-solid single-disc representation of the band at its artistic and commercial peak. But any fan who also has an appreciation for the band’s later, softer material should bypass Chicago IX and instead head straight for Rhino’s masterfully-compiled 2002 double-disc package The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning, which includes all thirty-five of the band’s Top 40 hits with the sole exception of “Harry Truman” (which, good song though it is, hardly anyone will notice is missing) and also tosses in a few lesser hits like “I’m a Man,” “Happy Man” and “Take Me Back to Chicago.” Cetera’s only solo best-of to date, You’re the Inspiration: A Collection, is unfortunately a must-avoid; it needlessly includes three newly-recorded versions of old Chicago songs (why Cetera felt this was necessary, I don’t know, because he certainly had enough quality songs at this point in his solo career to fill up a best-of without revisiting material from his former band) and it also inexplicably contains his hit duets with Cher (“After All” from the soundtrack to Chances Are), Chaka Khan (“Feels Like Heaven”) and Amy Grant (“The Next Time I Fall”) while not actually containing any of his non-duet hits as a solo artist like “One Good Woman,” “Restless Heart,” or even “Glory of Love.” (No, I’m not joking. “Glory of Love” really is not included. Go figure.)
Unfortunately, for all the many live albums by the band that are available, most of them are less than satisfying, not so much for the performances as the song selection or the quality of the mixes. The band’s first live disc, the notorious 1971 boxed set Chicago at Carnegie Hall (originally packaged with four posters and a concert program) suffers both from poor sound quality and too much material, clocking in at four entire discs in its original vinyl incarnation. (It is, however, one of the few places you can find “A Song for Richard and His Friends,” which never made it onto one of the band’s studio albums.) 1975’s Live in Japan (not released in the U.S. until 1996) has far superior sound quality but features several cuts sung in Japanese, which will likely be a bit jarring to English-speaking fans of the band. Rhino’s 2011 package Chicago’s XXXIV: Live in ’75 attempts to bridge the two by offering a well-recorded and more easily digestible document of a typical American date by the band during this time; favorites like “Saturday in the Park” and “Questions 67 and 68” are strangely absent, while a lot of album cuts (like “Anyway You Want” or “Ain’t It Blue?”) are included, but as the most hit-packed live album from the band with Cetera still featured in the lineup, it’s probably the closest thing to what most listeners would hope and expect a live album recorded at the band’s prime to be like.