Frontiers Records [Release Date 04.07.14]
Chicago’s enduring habit of numbering each of their albums consecutively only draw attention to their longevity. XXXVI is their first album of new material since 2006’s XXX, and while the latter saw them collaborating with contemporary pop and country acts, this marks a return to being self-produced and almost entirely self penned.
‘Now’ opens the album in promising fashion with lush arrangements, their long-serving horn section to the fore giving it an R and B feel and even a sweet guitar solo from Keith Howland.
‘America’ sees the lead vocal debut of new boy Lou Pardini and is a decent song even if the ‘we the people’ lyrics have been spoiled by overuse, while ‘Free At Last’ benefits from lively brass arrangements, but as the album progresses highlights are few and far between.
Not enough is heard of Jason Scheff, the purest voice in the band who only really gets to sing lead on the saccharine ballad ‘Love Lives On’, and his underuse is analogous to buying a Ferrari and leaving it in the driveway.
Instead the more workaday Robert Lamm seems to be firmly in the driving seat, sometimes in tandem with Pardini, while Bill Champlin’s songwriting has been a great loss.
There is a lazy and at times banal feel, lyrically and musically, to songs such as ‘Crazy Happy’ and ‘Another Trippy Day’, which reaches a new nadir on ‘Nice Girl’ where even Howland takes a turn at the mike. At least ‘Lost In The Garden Of Allah’ attempts a more adventurous eastern feel.
At their best in a distinguished career, Chicago have variously been purveyors of lush soft rock with hook-filled choruses, or musically adventurous jazz rockers (the latter side seen on the more recent Stone Of Sisyphus).
This latest effort manages to achieve neither, managing to both be bland and smug and lacking in memorable songs. Very disappointing. **
Review by Andy Nathan
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