MGF Reviews Chicago – Chicago (X)XXII: Stone of Sisyphus

Reviews, Top Story

Chicago – Chicago (X)XXII: Stone of Sisyphus
Rhino Records (6/17/08; should have been 1993… will explain later)
Popus interruptus

This one’s so weird that VH1’s Behind the Music would think twice about broadcasting it.

Let me take you back to late 1982, if I may. Yr Humble Scrivener was in college. Most of you were still at the gamete stage, if that. Chicago (the group, not the city) was having dirt thrown over it. Their longtime label, Columbia, dropped them after a series of disappointing albums (and to be fair, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth albums did well and truly suck). No other label wanted them. Disappointing sales track record over the past five or so years, and where did Chicago and its horns fit in a world full of synthesizers? It was only because their manager Irving Azoff had his own vanity imprint, Full Moon, that the group could record. Warner Brothers, who distributed Full Moon, wasn’t very happy about being stuck with this dinosaur act, but they were not about to piss off the guy who managed acts like the Eagles. So Warners sucked it up.

But Azoff didn’t develop his rep as one of the meanest and smartest SOBs in music for nothing. The center of pop music had moved away from Chicago. Azoff would have to move the group back to the center. He brought in David Foster, a man who could produce pop hits in his sleep, to produce the group (Foster at this point had not received his fatwa for inflicting Celine Dion on the English-speaking world). He brought in professional, proven hit-making songwriters like Diane Warren. And his instructions to Foster on how to handle the group were clear—mute the trumpets, crank up the synths.

And so Chicago 16 came to pass. Azoff accomplished his mission. It was frothy and fluffy compared to the dense compositions that Chicago had mastered earlier in their careers. Hardly any horns on it, either. Warners decided to test the waters with a single. They chose a sappy ballad that ended the first side which sounded like a rewrite of the group’s hit from Chicago XI, “Baby, What a Big Surprise” (one of Yr Humble Scrivener’s least-favorite Chicago tracks). And they were as surprised as anyone when “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” went to Number One. The new-model Chicago was officially a success. Warners was happy, Azoff was happy, and the group was happy.

You just knew that this wouldn’t last.

They went down the mine again for Chicago 17, and came up with more gold and platinum by showing their mastery of the power ballad that Warren was now famous for writing. It was at that point that Peter Cetera’s ego got the best of him. He decided to take his Art Garfunkel-sounding ass solo. Good for him, bad for anyone who’s been stuck listening to “Glory of Love” for the past twenty years. And good for Chicago, too. They found that Bill Champlin had the perfect voice for the music they were performing, and gave him the lead vocal chore. Chicago 18 and Chicago 19 both churned out hit singles and flew off the racks.

By this time, Foster had been replaced behind the boards by Ron Nevison, who had successfully reversed terminal Heart failure. “Look Away” topped the end-of-year Billboard charts in 1989. They were even able to get a hit single out of a greatest-hits album (“We Can Last Forever” wasn’t released as a single from Chicago 19). Things were going great. Right?

As the money came pouring in, no one knew that the group was about to break up. The heart of Chicago, its horn section of Jim Pankow, Walter Paradizer and Lee Loughnane, had been neglected for far too long. Their contributions had been driven so far to the side that if they departed, hardly anyone would have noticed. Hey, Jeff Lynne got away with firing the string section from ELO, right? The horn section’s dissatisfaction affected the other remaining original member, Robert Lamm, whose keyboards had benefitted from the retool. Everything came into sharp focus when Chicago Twenty 1 was a comparative failure, both commercially and critically. Even worse, the group had fallen into Image Prison as power-ballad hacks in the thrall of Warren’s writing; they were even noticing that their own compositions sounded like Diane Warren tracks. Something had to be done, or Chicago would implode while they were experiencing their greatest success.

They decided to go back to basics; go back to what made Chicago special, that blend of horns and catchy hooks. The group even found a sympathetic producer to handle them in Peter Wolf (not the J. Geils singer, but the German producer). Wolf was also a first-rate songwriter, which would help. Except for Wolf, the group took the songwriting internal again. They were focused. They knew what had to be done to keep the group together and regain a little bit of self-respect in the process. So they recorded Chicago XXII, which would have a subtitle of Stone Of Sisyphus (if you don’t understand the symbolism, look it up). The group was very happy with the result. It sounded like the perfect blend of their critically-acclaimed sound from the ’70s and their commercially-successful sound from the ’80s.

And then came the weird part.

Warner Brothers rejected the album. They wanted something like Chicago 18, not Chicago VIII. This stuff just wouldn’t sell in the Brave New Nineties up against artists like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion (that’s twice I’ve mentioned her; one more time and she’ll come to steal my body and soul). The band was absolutely flabbergasted. They couldn’t believe it. Both sides dug in, and the only way out was for Warners to release the group. This killed Chicago’s momentum completely, and they’re still trying to regain it to this day (Chicago XXX did wonders for that). And Stone Of Sisyphus would be fated to sit in the vaults, forever unheard.

But you can’t shut people up. Folks started talking about how great this lost Chicago album really was; how much of a return to form it could have been; how it could have saved them from doing Christmas albums and cover recordings just to keep their hand in. Stone Of Sisyphus gained a reputation similar to that of other great lost recordings like Smile. And then came the Internet. The tracks for the lost album leaked, a track order assembled by fans. As Stone Of Sisyphus torrented its way across the wide electronic sea, people now had a chance to reconcile the reputation with the actual material. Surprisingly, there was very little disappointment. The album actually lived up to its rep (well, mostly; with this kind of reputation, it would have been difficult).

Yr Humble Scrivener has had these tracks for years, of course. As a good Chicago fan, he could do no less. And he has enjoyed these tracks tremendously. And now, the impossible has happened. The tracks have been put in a proper running order and given a proper final mix, and released officially after fifteen years of hidden and occasionally illicit existence. A little alchemy involving the elimination of the weak track “Get On This”, plus the fact that Rhino is part of the Warner Music Group, has turned the Chicago XXII that never was into the Chicago XXXII that is.

This is going to be quite an unusual review. Except for the clean-up mix, I’ve heard all of this before (except for the bonus demos). Most people reading this haven’t. Then again, I’ve covered re-releases here before, so it shouldn’t be that different. But this is the first review where I’ve had to deal with the running order as a factor. The fan-assembled running order was pretty good. It gave a strong thematic feel to the work and the tracks flowed pretty well. Would the official running order enhance or detract? The only way to find out is to dig in.

Starting off with the title track might be a cliché, but in this case, it’s only appropriate. I’ve always thought it better as an opener than the fan-chosen “All The Years”. It’s definitely a signal of what’s going to happen on the rest of the disk. It’s as great a set-up as “Niagara Falls” was for Chicago 18 (and that’s high praise, since “Niagara Falls” is one of my favorite Chicago tracks from that era). The final mix has brightened up the brass and the keyboards to a fine sheen and blended them into a tantalizing mixture. What exactly was Warners listening to in 1992? What was the problem with this song that it couldn’t have been released as a single? Chicago was too white? Color me extremely pale and confused.

“Bigger Than Elvis” was placed after “Stone of Sisyphus” by fans as the third track, and maintaining its position was a good move as it’s the perfect stylistic counterpoint to the title track. Chicago in this era always did a quality job on ballads, and having The Jordanaires and Jerry Scheff on the track provides a depth to which most power ballads of the era never dared to go, in more ways than one. It’s a beautiful tribute from one legend to another, and that’s nothing to complain about at all. It could have been placed as the closing track, which would have suited both the song and the album in a thematic sense, but when you have a track named “The Show Must Go On”, it has to close the disk, as Queen realized on Innuendo.

Both “Stone Of Sisyphus” and “Bigger Than Elvis” were included on the box set, but not in this particular final mix. It was definitely a good teaser.

“All the Years” has benefitted from the final mix, with the horns moved up and the guitars equalized better. It also fits in better as the third track rather than the lead. I can understand why fans would have put it in the lead position; it’s reminiscent of “Explain It to My Heart”, which opened Chicago Twenty 1, and can be considered a lower-tempo comparison to “Heart in Pieces”, the lead from Chicago 19, except for the fact that “Heart in Pieces” was a phenomenal song, while “All the Years” has its moments of “just being there.”

“Mah Jong” was a song that I never really figured out. It seems to be played in two tempi at once, which doesn’t help you getting into the track. Jason Scheff rarely displays the desire to show off at bass, and when he does, it never seems to work. Quasi-funk and horns require something special to mix properly, and this track doesn’t really have it. If this were a Parliament jam, maybe I’d think better of it, because George Clinton had the tools to make it work properly. Chicago was trying to get away from its keyboard dominance at this point, but this was the track where more insane keyboard flourishes (other than the organ jam near the end of the song) would have worked. Points for attempting something different; points taken away for blowing the execution.

The resequencing of songs has helped “Sleeping in The Middle of the Bed”. The fan sequence had it right after “Bigger Than Elvis”, and the transition was too jarring, from beautiful ballad to quasi-hip-hop. Honestly, white people should never try doing this unless your name is Eminem. The separation has helped the thematic flow in this case. Both this song and “Mah Jong” don’t really fit in anywhere, so putting them together in the middle of the disk works. It’s a decent song, but the points score for “Mah Jong” apply here too. There are certain things that Chicago just shouldn’t do.

“Let’s Take a Lifetime”, unfortunately, brings up the Nine-Hundred Pound Gorilla that Chicago’s been trying to ditch for a decade and a half. This song cries out for Peter Cetera on vocals. In fact, Bill Champlin has never come closer to sounding like Cetera than he has on this song. Honestly, this sounds like a track from Chicago 16 with Cetera’s vocals wiped and Champlin’s added, along with a few more keyboards. Please, don’t misunderstand me. Bill Champlin is a fine singer. But when it comes to a pure ballad in a high range, Cetera’s one of the best of the last thirty years. There are moments in this song where it sounds like Cetera kissed and made up and came in for a guest appearance (blame the mix, since this song contains some classic Chicago harmonies reminiscent of Cetera’s lead work). It’s rather distracting for Chicago fans like me, but listeners who haven’t been immersed in their work for decades will find it to be a solid ballad.

At this point, the track sequencing follows the fan-assembled one. That means that the fans did a pretty good job in that regard, with only a few improvements needing to be made. Nice work, guys.

“The Pull” has always been one of my favorite tracks from this release. It’s big, it’s brassy, Champlin brings a wonderful sense of grandeur to the production, it’s got a solid bridge… it’s one of those wonderful album tracks that Chicago was churning out like nobody’s business during this period. Between Chicago 16 and this album, there were always two or three album tracks that you could point to that justified your purchase of the whole album rather than just sticking to the singles. “The Pull” is one of those. Champlin has never channeled more of Freddy Mercury’s approach to vocals than in this song, and he pulls it off nicely. The mix is a credit here, pushing Champlin slightly back into the mix and allowing his vocals not to overwhelm the instrumentation. Great song, no doubt.

And now we come to “Here With Me”. Big, mid-tempo ballad here with a kick-ass Champlin vocal and glowing chorus harmonies, just like most of Chicago’s hit singles in the previous eight years. So, Warners, what was the difference between this song and, oh, “Look Away” or “We Can Last Forever”? The horns up front? The slightly strange string section in the bridge? If you fault it for the latter, have a listen to “If She Would Have Been Faithful” and find a stylistic difference between the strings here and the keyboards on the latter. This was the song that could have continued Chicago’s hit-making string and not broken them in terms of style. If you’re a fan of the band’s ’80s work, here’s your hook into this album. Listen to this, then go back to “Stone of Sisyphus” and you’ll know why Chicago is appreciated and loved worldwide.

“Plaid” was Chicago’s contribution to the early-’90s trend of Song Titles That Mean Absolutely Nothing (see Pilots, Stone Temple). It’s a continuation of the trend of Chicago album filler that often threatened to overwhelm their albums in this period (Chicago 17, for instance, is composed of Hit Singles and Filler). It’s an exercise in off-tempo jazz-style jamming. Yes, Chicago does that well, but they’re not jazzmen at heart and it tends to show in cases like this. Good filler, but filler nonetheless.

’80s-Era Chicago were not known as great album closers. Their closing tracks tend to slow the album down from highway speeds rather than close with a crash. Yeah, “Love Me Tomorrow” was a hit single, but not a particularly good one. Their closers were more like “Victorious” from Chicago 19, which was led into by the inferior album mix of “You’re Not Alone” (the single mix of that song makes it one of the best pure pop tunes of its era), shifting gears down. “Cry for the Lost” maintains this mid-tempo down-shift sequencing; It’s more daring than their usual close-to-the-end tracks, admittedly, but it’s still mid-tempo and rather non-distinctive. Good song, don’t get me wrong, but definitely déjà vu. “The Show Must Go On”, as the legitimate closer, is definitely in the “Victorious” mode: mid-tempo, upbeat, etc. You could have swapped this song with “One More Day”, the closer from Chicago 18, with no problem. I have no idea why Chicago is this way. You need to start strong and close strong, and Chicago fails in the latter on a regular basis.

The extras begin with the demo version of the unreleased “Love Is Forever”. It’s actually quite a strong ballad, something very appropriate for any American Idol finalist to cover on his, her, or its first album after the show. It’s doubtful that they’d beat Champlin’s vocals, though. This song deserved a final mix and inclusion on Love Songs. Hell, they threw “No Tell Lover”, one of Cetera’s most twee vocal performances, on there. This was more worthy. The demo of “Mah Jong” is better than the final version. It’s very Steely Dan. Without the pseudo-funk flourishes, it even sounds like Donald Fagen’s doing background vocals. I prefer it to the final version. The demo of “Let’s Take a Lifetime” is a similar improvement. Champlin makes the song his in this version, and there isn’t that glaring need for Cetera as in the final version. The version of the title track without the rhythm loop, however…the rhythm loop really makes the song. You can tell that the ingredients are there, but it’s missing that last pinch of coriander or whatever. The vocals are clearer, but that’s not really the point of this song.

It’s absolutely wonderful that Stone of Sisyphus has seen official release. If it had come out in 1993, it may have changed some people’s minds about Chicago, forcing them not to write off their ’80s work as blatant pandering to the pop audience. But does it hold up in 2008? Actually, it does. It’s become a brilliant follow-up to Chicago XXX and whets appetites for Chicago XXXIII (and I/III). You can’t call it a comeback; you can’t really call it a revival. What you can call it is a lost album that mostly lives up to its reputation, with moments of true brilliance like the title track and “Here With Me”. If you’re dead-set in your opinion on Chicago, grab this and listen to this. This is what they were up to fifteen years ago, and if they had continued on this path, their ’90s work might have been as influential and brilliant as their ’70s work. As it is, Stone of Sisyphus opens up the path to critical reassessment. Hopefully, those critics will come to the same conclusion that I did a long time ago: Chicago is one helluva group, one worthy of entrance into the Hall of Fame.