Chicago’s Now: XXXVI may well be the venerable band’s first great album of new material in a generation. I do not mean to imply that Chicago 21 or Chicago XXX were not strong albums, only that they were shy of the greatness of some of the band’s best work.
Even Stone of Sisyphus: XXXIII, the holy grail of recent Chicago albums didn’t hit the mark the way Now does. Granted, this album’s power was hinted at last fall with the release of the single, “Somethin’ Comin’, I Know” — a song that hit on all cylinder: The fabled horn section’s sort sharp bursts gave keyboardist Robert Lamm an upbeat platform for his fresh-as-ever voice. The follow-up single “America,” “Naked In The Garden Of Allah” and “Crazy Happy” were equally, if not more, effective songs.
They were recorded, as with the remaining seven tracks on Now: XXXVI, in a whole new way — with the band using its mobile recording system while on tour. Typically, the band member who wrote the track acted as producer, with Hank Linderman continuing his role as head engineer. Additionally, the band was determined to handle the primary songwriting tasks, with every member of the band except for saxophone player Walter Parazader joining in.
Now: XXXVI kicks off in unusual fashion was with the title track, composed by Jason Scheff with Greg Barnhill. An Earth Wind and Fire feel is unmistakable, partly because Vernine White handles the bass playing and sometime EW&F arranger Harry Kim handles the horn charts. Scheff shares lead vocals with Lamm and Lou Pardini, which results in a sound which is soaring, inspired and funky. With “More Will Be Revealed,” Lamm dusts off a track which he’s had laying around for a few years and the band serves up a good dose of rock topped with R&B. The track jumps out of the speakers with the urgency of a new relationship.
I would be me remiss if I did not mention “Crazy Happy” again. Available on Lamm’s Myspace page years ago, it sounds as fresh as anything on the radio — and yet somehow typical Chicago. “Free At Last” is the closest Now: XXXVI gets to a traditional rocker, where guitarist Keith Howland and drummer Tris Imboden lead the band through an uplifting and inspired romp. The only thing the song is missing is Imboden’s bluesy harp playing. “Love Lives On” compares favorably to Chicago’s very best ballads of old. Scheff’s vocals are earnest and effectively weaved into the soaring arrangement. The song, cowritten with trombonist James Pankow, also features a tasty flugelhorn part by Lee Loughnane.
“Nice Girl” finds Howland and Imboden at it again, and in fine rocking form. The song is raw and impassioned. “Naked In The Garden Of Allah,” meanwhile, comes as close to a prog rock song as Chicago’s ever gotten. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers provides a stunning backdrop with his violin, while the horn section plays one of the most aggressive passages in the band’s history. The music is a perfect foil for Robert Lamm’s politically charged lyrics. Then there’s the bonus track “Another Trippy Day.” With its optimistic lyrics and complex horn arrangements, it almost seems to have fallen from their early-1970s work.
As you can see, Chicago packs a lot into Now: XXXVI. Long-term fans are sure to be pleased with the recorded proof that the band is still learning and leaning forward.