Every act has that one album that’s a pleasure to listen to from start to finish, with no songs to skip over or leave out of your iTunes library. You know them: Revolver. American Beauty. Led Zeppelin’s untitled album. Sticky Fingers. Dark Side of the Moon. Boston. Purple Rain. 21.
For Chicago, that album is 1972’s Chicago V: Ten songs worth of brilliant horn playing, superb lyrics masterfully sung, and four amazing rhythm section players who all play lead at least once – sometimes under the rest of the band! This is the one album I’d give to a space alien or a millennial who had never heard Chicago and wanted to know why Chicago is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I challenge any music fan to find even one single bad moment on Chicago V.
Bob Helme started us out last week with the great “A Hit By Varese.” I have the good luck to review “All Is Well,” Robert Lamm’s second of eight (count ‘em!) contributions to this marvelous set. The song is about recovering from an unpleasant happening – in this case, a romantic breakup – but rather than dwell on the negative event, Robert sings about that time when you start feeling better and looking to a happier future: “There was a time when I thought I was fooling myself, but now I’ll take a bow ‘cause I’m free and easy.”
We’ve all been in this situation before, and we can all relate to it. No matter what happened, you will mourn the change, but eventually you’ll come up on the positive side. We often forget about this until life throws us another curve and we have to go through this emotional cycle all over. Fortunately, there are songs like this to remind us that “it’s not always going to be this gray.” (Hey, there’s another one of those great albums.)
Robert Lamm, who studied musical composition at Roosevelt University, begins the song in the rarely-heard 6/4 time signature as he, Terry Kath and Peter Cetera sing in harmony about his recent breakup and the horns play two counter-melodies. Switching to the more common time of 4/4, Lamm takes a solo vocal on the “there was a time” section before repeating the 6/4 introduction. Under all this, Cetera is weaving a lead melody on the bass. Just listen to that! Why he isn’t considered among the best bassists in ’70s rock, I don’t know.
The middle section, again in 4/4, spotlights the horns, who play alternately in unison and in call-response phrases. Danny Seraphine is hitting something on all four beats high up in the mix, as enthusiastically as if Christopher Walken were right there in the studio requesting more. Jimmy Pankow gets in a few loud meows on the trombone before the horns go back to unison in 6/4 and Chicago reprises the first verse and the bridge. Finally, Lamm puts the whole thing to bed with a small, but somehow optimistic, coda on the Fender Rhodes with a wobbly last note sounded through an effects pedal.
You can’t help but smile after hearing this song. You can’t help but feel better. And you can’t help but feel you’re listening to sheer perfection.
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- Chicago, “All Is Well” from Chicago V (1972): Saturdays in the Park - January 28, 2017