by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Chicago Transit Authority (1969, Columbia)
They weren’t the first rock band to have a full-time horn section, nor were they even the first jazz-rock fusion act to sign to Columbia (Blood, Sweat & Tears beat them to that by a year), but it’s still a bit head-scratching how this album could remain so criminally ignored by the music press when it’s arguably even more musically adventurous (particularly in its improvisation-heavy back half) than Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Child Is Father to the Man, which still continues to pop up to this day on critics’ all-time-greatest-albums lists. Maybe it’s simply because this album did eventually, if belatedly, find a home on Top 40 stations (critics did, after all, begin to turn on Blood, Sweat & Tears immediately after Al Kooper jumped ship and David Clayton-Thomas came in and the band started to score major hits with songs like “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die”), but whatever the reason, this double-disc set (just one of many the group would release between 1969 and 1974) is a breathtaking hybrid of rock and jazz and easily one of the most criminally underrated debut albums from the ‘60s. Mind you, it does verge on self-indulgence at times, particularly the Terry Kath solo showcase “Free Form Guitar,” but the musicianship and instrumental interplay on display here are utterly astounding. (The late Terry Kath is usually the one who gets all the raves, but all these guys have serious chops, and Peter Cetera’s bass playing and Danny Seraphine’s drumming in particular are both wildly overlooked by critics.) The first disc in particular is a scorcher, opening with the musical mission statement of “Introduction,” which is as good an entryway into the band’s signature sound as you can ask for, and continuing with a string of masterfully crafted pop nuggets like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings,” and “Questions 67 & 68,” all of which work just as effectively as extended jam pieces as they do in the considerably shorter single edits you’re accustomed to hearing on the radio. Even as the hooks start to dry up roughly halfway through the package and the band wanders off into more experimental territory on cuts like “Liberation,” the record never actually ceases to be fascinating and there’s enough interesting interplay going on to justify all the jamming.
Chicago (1970, Columbia)
Their second double album and their first released under their newly-shortened moniker (the “Transit Authority” was dropped to avert a lawsuit from the actual Chicago Transit Authority), the album is a tad less fiery than the previous disc but no less adventurous. In fact, each of the last three sides boasts a full-blown song suite made up of smaller individually-credited movements; “Memories of Love” is forgettable, but the four-part “It Better End Soon” is a standout, and the James Pankow-penned nearly-side-long suite “Ballad for a Girl in Buchannon” is even better and contains two movements that were later masterfully edited into stand-alone singles: the jubilant brass stabs of their breakthrough hit “Make Me Smile” and the devastatingly pretty Terry Kath-sung stark balladry of “Colour My World,” which would go on to be played at countless proms and weddings in the ensuing years. This disc is where you’ll also find the thunderous “25 or 6 to 4,” with its iconic opening fuzz-guitar lick and soaring vocal from Peter Cetera. But the band is starting to work its gift for hooks into more than just their singles, and “Wake Up Sunshine,” “Fancy Colours,” and the Cetera-sung album closer “Where Do We Go from Here?” are all better-than-average album tracks from the band. The worst that can be said about the album is that it takes a little longer to get going than its predecessor; whereas that disc’s first side was a knockout from start to finish, all the most infectious songs here arrive on the final three sides. (Vinyl fans, take note: this is also the first of many Chicago albums that came packaged with a fold-open poster, so you may want to see if the poster is still intact before purchasing the disc.)
Chicago III (1971, Columbia)
Almost identical in its format to its predecessor (right down to containing four more traditional pieces on the first side and boasting one extended song suite on each of the following three sides), Chicago III is just as adventurous as the two previous albums and pales only due to weaker writing. Pankow’s sole contribution to the writing this time out is the side-long instrumental song suite “Elegy” (which is both extremely well-played and an extraordinary piece of composition, but probably of very little interest to anyone who’s not into jam bands or jazz music), while Kath’s “An Hour in the Shower” is their weakest extended song suite yet. [Even the best song suite here, “Travel Suite,” has an entire movement – “Motorboat to Mars” – that’s nothing but a drum solo.] There are no especially big hits to be found here, either; the biggest single on hand is “Free,” which just barely dented the Top Twenty, and even that song isn’t nearly as good as the only other – if lesser-known – single here, “Lowdown,” a co-write between Cetera and, unusually enough, Danny Seraphine. But, in spite of the occasional bits of self-indulgence and a lack of hit singles, there are still quite a few overlooked gems scattered throughout the record to be discovered, especially Lamm’s fabulous and deceptively complex “Mother,” the lightly-funk-tinged opener “Sing a Mean Tune, Kid,” and, best of all, Cetera’s “What Else Can I Say,” a surprisingly successful fusion of country-rock and Abbey Road-era Beatles.
Chicago V (1972, Columbia)
The very first thing you notice about this album – technically only their fourth studio outing (Chicago IV was a live album spread out over a whopping four discs and packaged with four different fold-open posters) – is that it’s only a single-disc package, a first for the band. But it’s actually not all that less adventurous for its brevity, since very little here sounds commercial enough to be a single and the band is simply taking its more epic or self-indulgent ideas and compacting them all into more concise packages. [“Dialogue (Part 1)” and “Dialogue (Part 2)” (though there’s technically no break between the two) is as complex as it gets this time out, and even those were edited together to fit onto a single side of a 45 for single release.] Also, unusually for a Chicago album, the writing is almost entirely dominated by one member – in this case, Robert Lamm. (Kath and Pankow each contribute only one song, while Cetera surprisingly has no writing credits at all.) But despite a lack of commerciality, the songs here are still strangely appealing for the most part. “All Is Well” is built around a moody, Pink Floyd-like melody line largely sung in unison by the band’s vocalists, while Pankow’s “Now That You’re Gone” impresses with its R&B guitar licks, Walter Parazaider’s sax solos, and Seraphine’s utterly ruthless tom-tom work. Cetera’s wah-wah bass powers the wormy lite-funk of “While the City Sleeps,” while the album-opening “A Hit By Varese” is unusually prog-rock-oriented and would sound just as at home on an early Styx or Emerson, Lake & Palmer record. Lest you think the album makes no concessions to pop radio, the disc does boast one of the band’s most beloved standards, the jaunty “Saturday in the Park,” which is as close as any band came in the ‘70s to recapturing the spirit of the Rascals’ timeless chart-topper “Groovin’” on 45. The album undeniably goes downhill after “Saturday in the Park,” but by that time, you’re nearly done with the record, anyway, so there’s really not all that much filler here.
Chicago VI (1973, Columbia)
Like its predecessor, Chicago VI is a rare single-disc outing from the band’s earliest years. But this time out, there’s a noticeable greater emphasis placed on pop accessibility, so this album isn’t nearly as weird as Chicago V was and doesn’t take quite so many spins to warm up to. There are two oldies-stations classics included here, the sunny lite-soul of “Just You ‘n’ Me” and the utterly brilliant “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” which, fittingly for a song of that title, keeps gradually building in power over the course of the song, ultimately culminating in a heated instrumental workout that rivals anything from the band’s debut, but the strength of the surrounding album cuts is the biggest surprise. The album-opening “Critic’s Choice” is a moody piano ballad from Lamm that not only hits back at the band’s detractors in the music press but foreshadows the kind of music that the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson would go on to perfect on his solo album Pacific Ocean Blue, while the wistful “Something in This City Changes People,” with its utterly gorgeous harmonies, sounds like it could have just an easily been a hit for America (“Ventura Highway,” “A Horse with No Name,” “Sister Golden Hair”). The Cetera-sung-and-penned “In Terms of Two” is a heavily country-tinged song with one of the most infectious melodies Cetera’s ever crafted. This disc may downplay the band’s more experimental side considerably, but as the band’s most pop-oriented outing yet, it actually works quite well and shouldn’t be discounted.
Chicago VII (1974, Columbia)
After two straight single platters, the band indulges itself once more (for the last time, as it would turn out) by making yet another double-disc studio outing. There’s actually arguably even more good material to be found here than on Chicago III, but the album suffers from being horribly sequenced. For some odd reason, all the instrumentals have been placed at the front of the album, meaning that the first vocals on the album don’t arrive until halfway through the second side, which will truly test the patience of the band’s more pop-minded fans. [To the band’s credit, the instrumentals are generally very good – “Devil’s Sweet” goes a bit overboard with the drum solos, but “Aire” is one of the band’s most impressive instrumental outings and the futuristic squeaks of the synth-laden “Italian from New York” are captivating.] Most listeners will likely want to skip right to Cetera’s criminally underrated and Stevie Wonder-like “Happy Man.” Other highlights include Lamm’s “Skinny Boy,” featuring the Pointer Sisters on backing vocals, and the Latin-tinged acoustic grooves of Kath’s “Byblos.” There are also three sizable hit singles here as well: the breezy, conga-laden “Call on Me” (the band’s first song to be penned by trumpet player Lee Loughnane), the pretty, Cetera-sung ballad “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long,” and the somber “Wishing You Were Here,” which finds Kath and Cetera trading off vocals to brilliant effect, all the while backed up by the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine. If you can overlook the poor sequencing, there’s still a lot here to like.
Chicago VIII (1975, Columbia)
Chicago VIII upped the band’s packaging by incoporating not just a fold-open poster, as the band so often included, but a large iron-on decal of the cover art as well! As far as the music goes, this album (which finds the band reverting back to a single-disc format) tends to be considered one of the weakest of the band’s earliest albums, but why that’s the case is a bit of a mystery. The disc may lack a single as iconic as “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” but song for song, this might actually be a more consistent album from start to finish than Chicago VI and also shows off the band’s virtuosity in a very impressive way. The band has rarely rocked as hard in the past as they do on “Hideaway,” while the band unexpectedly ventures into more Randy Newman-styled territory on the nostalgic “Harry Truman.” Kath turns in a sparkling gem with his brief acoustic ballad “Till We Meet Again” but shines just as brightly on the Jimi Hendrix-tinged “Oh Thank You Great Spirit.” The two-part Pankow-written “Brand New Love Affair” is an odd choice for a single, but it, too, demonstrates the band’s virtuosity in an amazing way, the jazzy balladry of the Kath-sung Part One unexpectedly segueing effortlessly into the up-tempo rock/R&B fusion of the Cetera-sung Part Two.) Elsewhere, the driving rock of “Long Time No See” verges on the Beatlesque, while the stomp of the Cetera-sung opener “Anyway You Want” nearly recalls Fats Domino. The two most infectious cuts of all here, both of them sung by Cetera, are the mellow ballad “Never Been in Love Before” (strangely bypassed as a single entirely, even though it’s much more immediate than “Brand New Love Affair” or even the Top 40 –charting “Harry Truman,” for that matter) and the sunny, nostalgia-themed “Old Days,” which nicely recaptures the jaunty feel of “Saturday in the Park” but with just an extra little bit of pep to the proceedings. So what if this is the band’s most unapologetically pop-flavored album since Chicago VI? The important thing is that this is all very well-crafted (and a nice bounce-back after its filler-heavy predecessor), and there are enough hooks and intriguing bits of musical interplay even in the less familiar tunes here to keep you coming back.