Full disclosure: I think everybody who dares to write critically about music should be devoted to at least one terminally unhip band, and mine is Chicago. Not “Chicago the Dopey Mid-80s Ballad Machine,” but the fierce, inventive group that put out about six or seven great albums in the early 70s before descending into a middle-of-the-road morass which they barely survived.
One reason for the band’s artistic decline was that they quit recording songs by the person who wrote and sang most of their earliest hits: Robert Lamm, the band’s keyboardist. (No, really–Chicago wasn’t always Peter Cetera’s backup band.) Lamm is the glassy baritone heard on “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Saturday In The Park,” and “Beginnings.” For some reason (*cough*PETER CETERA), Lamm faded into the background of the group around ’75, and still hasn’t exactly re-emerged.
You could sense Lamm’s frustration on his two solo albums previous to Subtlety and Passion, 1995’s Life Is Good In My Neighborhood and 1999’s In My Head. Both albums had their share of blatantly non-Chicago moments, with Lamm even assaying a turn at hip-hop(!) on In My Head. It was a clear cry for help from a guy who’d spent too long as a prisoner in an adult-contemporary nostalgia factory.
Now, though, with Chicago essentially without a record deal but still an active touring band, Lamm has abandoned any delusions of contemporaneity and come out with what amounts to a brand-new old Chicago album: Subtlety and Passion.
Heck, he’s even dug up an old Terry Kath guitar solo and written new music to fit around it (the lite-funk of “Intensity”). Every track on Subtlety and Passion has the feel of a long-forgotten Chicago album track. The sound is lush, warm, and organic; there’s a distinct Brazilian vibe to many of the songs, as there was on Chicago tracks like “Call On Me,” “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” “No Tell Lover,” and the sublime “Beginnings.”
Lamm is still willing to explore social commentary in his music as well, skewering the silliness of made-for-TV awards shows on “Gimme Gimme” and looking at post-9/11 personal realities in the stark, electronic “It’s Always Something.” “You Never Know The Story” is a touching tribute to Terry Kath and Miles Davis.
There’s another reason why this has the feel of a classic Chicago album, and that’s because the entire band as it is currently constituted appears on it. Not every member appears on every song, but the whole band is here, and the horns are given a prominence they haven’t really had since the late 70s. It’s a kick to hear the Chicago horns at high dudgeon, and properly recorded for a change. Lamm himself is in good form as well. He throws some cool Fender Rhodes work into almost every song, and his voice hasn’t lost much over time.
Now, even though I’ve spent a few paragraphs telling you that this album instantly recalls Chicago’s heyday, don’t go thinking that this album is a time-warp back to 1975. The songs fit Chicago’s old style quite well, but they do represent a gradual musical evolution. And, amazingly, while Chicago was always about as pop as a band gets, after a couple listens to Subtlety and Passion, I keep having the same thought: There’s not a track here that wouldn’t sound out of place on the local “smooth-jazz” station. (Well, except for the fact that it’s just a little too interesting to be thrown up against the likes of Messrs. Koz and G; it would only discourage them, and then what would we listen to in the dentist’s office? Savage Garden?)
All in all, I like this album, but a lot of that is because I like Chicago. Small matter; the people this album is for, it’s really for. And I’m happy to be one of those people.Powered by Sidelines