Contrary to what kids today might think, Chicago’s new CD XXX has nothing to do with any Vin Diesel movie nor is it a volume of porno music or full of hard-core, uncensored lyrics. No, the title XXX is merely referencing the fact that this is the band’s 30th album. Chicago has always numbered their albums instead of giving them more descriptive or illuminating titles, and the fact that this album is number 30 can’t help but emphasize the band’s long history. Perhaps it is because the band’s last release was their extraordinary The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning, XXX comes across as rather uneven, as if the band is trying to reinvent itself while still holding on to its past. What results are some really good songs, but also a few “what the heck?” ones as well.
The way in which the CD starts off is rather jarring. I was expecting something a little more traditional, but instead we get “Feel (Hot Single Mix),” a song that sounds as though it could have spewed from any modern pop group or — shudder — boy band. To throw in a gratuitous theme park reference (which loyal readers will know I’m apt to do), it’s as though you hopped on the train at Disneyland bound for a nostalgic trip to Fantasyland and found yourself arriving in Videopolis instead. “Feel (Hot Single Mix)” isn’t a bad song, it’s just not what I’d expect from Chicago and I think that’s what gets this album off to a faulty start. Beginning an album with a “Mix” of a song found elsewhere on the album? It’s an odd choice and seems to scream of desperation in trying to strike a chord with a younger audience.
Compare the “Hot Single Mix” with the “w/Horns” version of “Feel” that closes the album and — wow — what a difference those horns make. Finally, THIS sounds like Chicago! Those trademark Chicago horns take the otherwise unremarkable “Feel” and ground the sound in an endearing realm that fans of Chicago have come to know and expect from the band. Why not put the “w/Horns” version first on the album and leave the “Hot Single Mix” last as a kind novelty track?
XXX’s second track, “King of Might Have Been,” continues the unremarkable sound of “Feel (Hot Single Mix),” leading me initially to wonder if this album should have broken from Chicago’s numerical titling and gone with the label, “Chicago’s Might Have Been.” It’s not until the third track, “Caroline,” that the album seems to reroute its detour-like journey and heads straight back into the Chicago I remembered with triumphant horns heralding our arrival. “Caroline” begins a string of great songs that thankfully lasts through most of the rest of the album before dropping off a bit again towards the end, seemingly running out of steam with songs like “Already Gone” and “Better.”
XXX, while an uneven album, still has enough good new Chicago tunes to warrant a purchase from die-hard fans, even though there’s much about the album that feels like this release wasn’t directed at them. For most of us, though, we’d probably be better off just buying the few really good tracks individually from iTunes. I wouldn’t want to miss having “Caroline,” “Love Will Come Back,” “Long Lost Friend,” “90 Degrees and Freezing” or “Where Were You” in my collection of Chicago tunes, but “Feel (Hot Single Mix)” certainly won’t be missed.