Chicago XI

Chicago

Columbia Records, 1977

http://www.chicagotheband.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/23/2009

Growing up, Chicago was unquestionably my favorite group. Rare for a youngster growing up in the late ’90s and early ‘Naughts, but it’s the truth.  When one is young, rationality is often thrown out the window and I was no exception. In my eyes, Chicago was the greatest band ever, and deserving of everyone’s respect for their immense chart success and melding of jazz and rock.

Now that I am a little bit older and a little bit wiser, I can actually analyze the boys from the Windy City with a critical eye. While it is true Chicago did rule the airwaves during the 1970s and a brief portion of the ’80s, one does not have to look far to see why they have slipped into irrelevance. There is the simple, undeniable truth that the band became an oldies group, secure in maintaining their small yet profitable fan base.

Yet I see the logo as lying at the core of why Chicago fails to garner much respect. Chicago was a faceless group; there were no true standout stars for the first twenty of so years of their career. Hit single after hit single kept coming, and the group left the impression of having no soul, essentially becoming an assembly line designed to churn out product. Chicago’s democratic writing process meant no one personality had control over the group’s direction, and thus they remained a faceless, seemingly corporate entity, a sentiment echoed even by the critics of the day.

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There is a small measure of credence to that viewpoint, but there is no doubt Chicago was more than some manufactured rock monster. There was genuine heart in the band, most of that coming from lead guitarist Terry Kath. He was the unquestioned soul of Chicago, an individual the band was never able to replace following his tragic, accidental suicide. Chicago XI marks the last record Kath would play on, and it is fitting that it is one of the group’s better efforts.

The tone of Chicago XI  is set by the leadoff track “Mississippi Delta City Blues,” a song the band had experimented with in their earlier days, but was just seeing the light of day eleven albums in. Terry Kath is front and center in all respects, as he is often throughout the record. People often forget that Kath was both the lead and rhythm guitarist for the group, a feat that becomes more and more impressive as one studies the songs closely. Kath had the ability to effortlessly shift from the bluesy r&b shuffle of the opening track to the surprisingly heavy, acid rock-tinged “Takin It On Uptown.”

The aforementioned democratic leanings of Chicago are demonstrated quite effectively on Chicago XI; a quick rundown of the tracklist reveals all the principal players in the band either wrote or co-wrote at least one song. Two such songs, “Til The End Of Time” and “This Time,” in addition to having been written by two members of the horn section, feature vocals from the same two members: James Pankow and Lee Loughnane.

Drummer Danny Seraphine never was a huge force within the group when it came to writing songs, but his effort “Take Me Back To Chicago” remains one of Chicago’s unheralded classics and deserved to chart higher than it did. The wistful reminiscing of the opening verses sets the stage for a killer ending, featuring an outstanding soulful duet between Terry Kath and the famous Chaka Khan.

Some might have noticed the lack of attention the singles from the record have received thus far, and I assure you that is no coincidence. Coming off the massive success of Chicago X’s “If You Leave Me Now,” Peter Cetera saw fit to retake the same ground in the form “Baby What A Big Surprise.” To deny that I have caught myself humming the tune would be futile; but the level of schmaltz is too much to take.

Terry Kath would never again perform on a Chicago record, for shortly after the release of Chicago XI, he accidentally killed himself in the one of the more tragic stories in rock and roll history. Chicago would never be the same, floundering for half a decade before retooling their sound and image into the ballad-heavy monster they would become during the ’80s. For many, this is the last worthwhile Chicago album, and it’s easy to see why.

Rating: B+

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© 2009 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 Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.