What's It Gonna Be, Santa?


Rhino Records, 2003


REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


Chicago fans have been desperate for an album of original material from the band for about thirteen years. Well since then, the closest Chicago has been to answering that wish is Night And Day, Chicago's tribute to the big band era, and the bands latest offering, What's It Gonna Be, Santa? Neither album has been what the fans have been asking for, but they have been welcome surprises.

To be perfectly frank, with the exception of the unreleased album Stone of Sisyphus, this is Chicago's strongest work since the disaster that was Chicago 21. The power ballads, the synthesizers, the drum triggers, the elements that Chicago used during their burst of popularity of the 80's are gone. Instead there are glimpses of what made the old Chicago so very, very good: the multiple vocalists, the diverse styles, and most importantly, an energetic performance from the horn section.

The heart of Chicago is their horn players, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Lougnane, and Walt Paraziader. With What's It Gonna Be, Santa?, the brass section leads the way, acting as that other "vocalist" as the band themselves put it. On "Sleigh Ride" the trio matches Jason Scheff as he goes from note to note, with the occasional jazzy burst. If the song requires a quieter arrangement, i.e. "Feliz Navidad," the horns stream fluidly, not pushing anything, resulting in a very natural sound. On past albums at times, it has seemed like horn arrangements were just tacked on so they would sound like Chicago. Not so on this work.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Chicago has been blessed to have a bevy of outstanding singers throughout their 35+ year career. In fact, the band has not this wide array of singers since the 70's. Five different members have lead vocals at some point on the album, each one bringing something original to the table. Jason Scheff is the so called "Peter Cetera Clone", but this is his best performance of his career with the band. Robert Lamm contributes with his silky smooth, almost lounge singer-esque voice. Bill Champlin and Lee Loughnane in turn each bring a soulful, gritty quality to the songs they perform on. Keith Howland, making his lead vocal debut, gives the most plain performance, but makes up for it with enthusiasm.

As always, the sound of the band is a group effort. The moments where the band hits on all cylinders, "Bethlehem," "What Child Is This," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," etc., give evidence that the band hasn't run out of gas just yet, and can still be creative when they want too. The challenge in making a Christmas album is that the songs have been heard and played so many times. The goal is to make these classics your own, and Chicago does just that.

What's It Gonna Be, Santa?, clocks in at twenty songs and goes over the hour mark, which means that there is bound to be some filler. Two of the original song, "Childs Prayer" and "One Little Candle" are cute, but not necessary. It's nice to hear the band member's kids, but I want to hear more of the guys themselves. I've never liked "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"; no matter who performs it, though Chicago gives it a good try. Some of the more average moments such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," or "Christmas Time Is Here" could have been weeded out.

What's interesting about this album is that some of it was originally released in 1998 as Chicago's First Christmas or Chicago XXV. It did fairly well, so it's interesting that band felt the need to expand it. If I had my way, I would probably take the original version, take out some performances on it, and throw in some of the added songs on this album. However, What's It Gonna Be, Santa? is the album to get if you A.) enjoy Christmas music, and B.) like Chicago.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2004 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.