Chicago is probably the only band in history to begin their career with three double albums and a quadruple-album live set. With all that music coming from seven people, there is bound to be some filler and experiments that just don't work. Chicago II (as it has come to be known) is proof of that.
The most immediate aspect of Chicago II, aside from the band's shortened name, is how pop they have suddenly become. Gone are the extended suites of the magnificent debut album; the long jazz solos and sense of adventure has been shored up in favor of tighter, popper numbers. A sense of adventure and spirit pervaded Chicago Transit Authority; here, things begin to blur together and, worse, are just plain boring.
The entire first side is pretty bland, actually, with only a few highlights -- the sax solo on "Movin' In," the moody "Poem For The People" -- are worth the time. The second side is given over to the multi-part "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon," which comprises seven songs, two of which were hits and none of which add up to a cohesive suite. The hits "Colour My World" and "Make Me Smile" are here and available on any hits comp; they were popular, but they already foreshadowed what Chicago would become and are as far away from the debut as possible.
The second album isn't much better, although the shorter suite "It Better End Soon" isn't too bad, incorporating jazzy horns, flutes, solid bass work and your basic anti-war lyrics ("You bent the rules once / It didn't turn out / Now we must try again / Before they kill us all / No more dyin'").
And, of course, the uniformly excellent "25 Or 6 To 4" is easily the highlight of the entire record. A song about the difficulty of writing a song (or so Robert Lamm says), the song is driven by the strident percussion, some wicked guitar work from Terry Kath and one of the group's finest vocals.
Yet the whole thing feels underdeveloped; 12 of the 23 songs are less than three minutes and often the songs feel unfinished, especially on the "Buchannon" side. Occasionally a horn here or bass there will grab you, but more often than not the record fails to excite.
As the hits are available elsewhere, this one is recommended only to fans digging in to the band's vast back catalog. While it by no means is as bad as the band's 80s work, it still doesn't have enough going for it to be an essential listen.