Chicago III

Chicago

Warner Brothers, 1971

http://www.chicagotheband.com

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/04/2017

You sometimes hear talk about the work ethic of bands in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s who chose (or were forced) to release albums each year, but Chicago likely towers above any other band you can name for this surfeit of ethic. In three years, the band released three double albums and then, as the capper to this gluttony, a quadruple live album the year after.

In many ways, Chicago III is the first ending of the original band. The albums released between 1973 and 1978 (Chicago V through Chicago XI, including a popular hits collection) all featured shorter songs on single albums (well, VIII had shorter songs on two albums, but they didn’t sound like this), with more of an emphasis on ballads and less on the jams and suites and solos that populated the first three albums. Terry Kath’s accidental death after the release of XI marked the second ending of the original band, as did their split from their producer James Guercio, and never again would the band come back to this kind of sound.

But one listen to Chicago III reveals that the original approach couldn’t go on forever. Three multi-part suites on one album is leaning toward overkill, and indeed this album isn’t as fondly remembered as the stunning debut or Chicago II. There really weren’t any hits other than maybe “Free” and “Lowdown,” which failed to make the same impact “Colour My World” or “25 Or 6 To 4” had critically and commercially. The overall effect of the album, then, is worthy of admiration, as it mines the same sound and feel of the first two records, but there’s just a missing spark in the songwriting that makes it not fully connect.

Individual standout moments abound, though. “Sing A Mean Tune Kid” is a heck of an opener, a 10-minute piece with attitude in the vocals and an extended guitar solo, with limber rhythm section work and horn punctuations that bring it all together. “I Don’t Want Your Money” is a solid blues-rocker as well, kind of like “South California Purples” from the debut, sounding a bit like early Jethro Tull but much better. “Loneliness Is Just A Word” is a good album track as well, though “What Else Can I Say” is a rather dull ballad, portending the Peter Cetera-led sap that would permeate the ‘80s.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The second side of the original album is the “Travel Suite,” a six-song effort with little to recommend, sadly. “Flight 602” is so much a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff that I wondered if they had swapped it out in the studio when Robert Lamm was on a coffee break, “Motorboat To Mars” is a short drum solo, “Free Country” is an overlong and wispy flute/piano ballad and “At the Sunrise” is bland Chicago-by-numbers. “Free” works in this context, at least, a noisy little two-minute one-note rocker and “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” is deceptively simple but builds in complexity, the acoustic guitar joined by the flute solo and jazzy drumming that is far from straightforward. It goes on a bit long for what it offers, but that’s par for the course by now.

“Lowdown” is a fine rocker on the second disc and a prelude to the second suite, “An Hour In The Shower,” a Kath composition comprised of five one-minute-long pieces. I would imagine this was done for purely pretentious prog-pop reasons, as this easily could have been a six-minute song with one name, but whatever. As the rocker and, arguably, the beating heart of the original group, Kath’s songs are almost automatically successful, but like the rest of Chicago III the piece values form over function. When it’s done, you’ll wonder why you just spent six minutes listening to it.

The fourth side is taken up by a 15-minute suite called “Elegy” that starts with a spoken-word poem called “When All The Laughter Dies In Sorrow” and you can’t get much more cheerful than a poem about cosmic tears and the greater thinking thing giving a damn. The “Progress?” section is a bunch of random horn blasts that get irritating quickly (“Canon” is a short horn-filled introduction), but “Once Upon A Time” and “The Approaching Storm” are better instrumentals, the latter in particular finding room for a quirky guitar solo among the thunderous horn blares. And as pretentious as a song called “Man vs. Man: The End” is, it nicely wraps up the piece with suitable drama. Again, none of the songs by themselves are all that noteworthy, but the entire piece is able to convey a story through music and gives the horns (and composer James Pankow) a chance to shine.

Some fans consider this better than the first two, a culmination of what the guys had been working up to at that point, but the truth is that it’s just a little too much of a good thing without the great songs necessary to carry it fully to completion, like the White Album or Tusk. Chicago would realize the same thing and scale back from here on out, making this the last album of its kind. Not an easy album to warm up to, but its pleasures are worth seeking out for longtime Chicago fans.

Rating: B-

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