(Adapted from an earlier review of this album, originally published on The Daily Vault: 06/07/2004)
There are certain albums that have become legends since their release: Dark Side Of The Moon, Back In Black, Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, Led Zeppelin IV -- the list goes on. These are works ingrained into the foundation of rock.
Yet some albums become legends by never getting released, for various reasons. There is the Beach Boy’s Smile album, the brilliant follow-up work to Pet Sounds, and there were rumors of bootleg tapes in which Back In Black was sung by Bon Scott. In recent times, there was The Lillywhite Sessions from Dave Matthews. Now, I give you Chicago’s Stone Of Sisyphus, which finally saw release in 2008, fifteen years after it was originally recorded.
In the 1980s, Chicago shifted gears completely from their earlier sound in the ‘70s. As a result, Chicago by the end of the decade was pegged as a “power ballad band.”While the band had success with songs like “You’re The Inspiration” and “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” earlier on, the public eventually grew tired of them. It was after the abysmal performance of Chicago 21 that the band decided to take matters into their own hands. They retreated to the studio in 1994 and crafted an album that was their best since Chicago XI, which marked the death of their former lead guitarist Terry Kath.
If there is one word to sum up SOS, it’s energy. This is surely not coincidence, seeing as how Chicago wanted to let loose after being stifled for long. This is readily apparent with the horn section of Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, and Walt Parazaider. The three brass musicians play with purpose, and instead of the horns being tacked onto songs just for the purpose of it being a Chicago song, they instead drive the songs. The best example of this would be on the title track. As the vocals reach the climax, the horns are there to answer at every bridge. At the end, the brass just goes wailing exuberantly, giving “Stone Of Sisyphus” that something special. To paraphrase Nigel Tufney of Spinal Tap, “They go up to 11.” The original intent for Chicago was to have the brass section play the part of “another vocalist;” that is how integral the horns would be. On SOS, there shades of that for the first time in years.
Chicago has always been blessed with at least three lead vocalists. On SOS, Jason Scheff, who replaced Peter Cetera, finally comes into his own. His heartfelt performance “Bigger Than Elvis” is a career highlight, which doesn’t come as much of a shock given that the song was written about Jerry Scheff, Jason’s father, who was The King’s bassist. Instead of trying to ape Cetera, and follow the “Chicago Formula,” he attempts to put his stamp on the material. His higher register blends perfectly with that of his band-mates on “Plaid,” and “Here With M,” songs that directly recall the glorious harmonies of early
So what about the other two singers? Robert Lamm has one of the silkiest and smoothest voices in rock, and his work on SOS is no exception. He brings an element of stability to the band, seeing as how he has been in Chicago since the beginning. However, it his work on the experimental “Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again” that is his highlight. This tune is Chicago’s stab at rap, and Lamm’s instinctual understanding of melody and rhythm assures the listener that this won’t be too much of a departure from the elements that made the band successful. Champlin is the “soulful guy,” and it’s a pleasure to hear him on songs like “Plaid.” Lyrically, the song is a stab at the record companies, and it’s great to hear the sneer and distaste in Champlin’s vocals.
Chicago hasn’t been known to experiment musically since their very early albums, but on SOS they get back to it. Funk (“Mah-Jong”), rap ("Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again”), world music (“Plaid”) -- the band samples from all these genres to add texture to their already full sound. With the official release of the album, however, there was one casualty in the track list that needs mentioning. “Get On This,” a song written by former Chicago guitarist Dawayne Bailey, saw Chicago delving into hard rock, or at least as hardened as Chicago could move in that direction. The track was one of the more courageous works on SOS, and to see it left off as a result of (supposed) band politics is a tad disheartening.
While my joy at seeing this record released is great, there is a certain level of letdown as well. With SOS having seen the light of day, it has officially become a Chicago album -- the myth and speculation and mystique have vanished. This same phenomenon occurred for other music fans, particularly with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Whereas before reviewing the record had a romantic quality to it, I now am forced to judge it by its official merits.
Don’t get me wrong: SOS is still a damn fun record that ranks in the top five of Chicago albums. However, there are still some negatives to its official release. For one, the sound is dated; it is very much a product of its time. Some would attack that line of reasoning, but if the band wanted to make it the next Chicago album in 2008, then they had to accept that fact. The bonus material is disappointing as well; two demo tracks that sound it, and a demo of a song titled “Love Is Forever.” From what I have been told, this track was not recorded for these sessions but for Chicago 21. If so, why place it alongside the SOS works?
It also suffers from the high expectations that surround “lost albums.” After fourteen years of buildup, no record can manage to sound as creative and unique as it would have originally (the only exception in my mind would again be SMiLE). I’m willing to be forgiving with these consequences, but that does not change the fact that I don’t think of the record as well as I once did.
Therein lies the tragedy of Stone Of Sisyphus. Warner Brothers, after hearing the album, was aghast. They told Chicago to go back into the studio and “record some ballads or something.” The band, in defiance, refused to do so, and left the label. However, the dismissal of SOS left Chicago devastated. The band had put all their energy and talent into the crafting of an album that was really Chicago, and had been shot down. Would the album have driven the band back to the top of the charts for a third time? Probably not, but fact of the matter is that Chicago was never given that opportunity in the first place, and their fans had to wait fourteen years before enjoying the fruits of the band’s labor.
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