If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.
By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.
The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.
Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.
Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield