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This new mix of a classic Chicago album provides clearer sound and brings out subtle nuances.

Music Review: Chicago – ‘Chicago II (Steven Wilson Remix)’

“This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.”

This statement is from the liner notes of Chicago’s second album. Even though Chicago II, as it came to be known (its official title was simply Chicago, reflecting the shortening of the band’s name from Chicago Transit Authority after receiving a cease and desist order from the city of Chicago), presented an impressive array of music and explored multi-part compositions, many fans considered the initial recording of lesser quality than the band’s first album, a feeling reinforced when the third LP was released.

Despite the sound issues perceived by many, the record launched the band onto the U.S. Top 40 singles and Top 10 album charts. Rhino Records is acknowledging the 47th anniversary of Chicago II‘s initial release, with a remix by British progressive rock musician and producer Steven Wilson. (Ironically, the release also comes out 39 years to the week in which guitarist Terry Kath died from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound.) Wilson is no stranger to remixing classic rock albums. Not surprisingly, most have been progressive rock bands, such as Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And there’s a good argument that the wide-ranging and eclectic styles on Chicago II make it a prog rock record.

While the band’s debut, Chicago Transit Authority, used strong horns and driving guitar in what was called jazz rock, the follow-up blended a variety of genres. Chicago II also reflects the formal and practical music education of its members, as three of the four sides of the LP contained multi-part works. In creating the remix, Wilson used the original 16-track tapes, allowing him, he says, to “rebuild the mix from the drums upwards” with the hope of gaining “definition and clarity.”

Those goals are reflected in several components that particularly earmark the remix. Foremost is there’s more upper end, obviating the muddiness of the initial release. Wilson also seems to bring out subtleties buried in the original. For example, while the new mix reflects that, except for a couple solos, Kath’s guitar is less prominent than on the Chicago Transit Authority. In addition, the drums seem crisper and the colors and textures of the horns seem more expansive.

Chicago II opens with “Movin’ In.” It starts out with the band’s hallmark horn sound but moves into a bop-based sax solo by Walt Parazaider. In fact, the first five songs, four of which were originally side one of the two-record LP, are akin to what a fan at the time might expect. But the other three sides show a greater range of musicality.

Perhaps most notable and widely recognized is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”, which, at about 13 minutes in length, took up the bulk of side two. It’s a six-song suite penned by trombone player James Pankow, reflecting his interest in classical song cycles. Despite being the band’s first excursion into lengthy multi-part songs, it also provided two of the three Top 40 hits of the album, “Make Me Smile” (No. 9), “Colour My World” (No. 7), and “25 or 6 to 4” (No. 4).

“Make Me Smile” was the band’s breakthrough into the Top 10. Yet it’s actually a record company edit combining the first (“Make Me Smile”) and last (“Now More Than Ever”) songs in the “Buchannon” suite. “Colour My World,” which appears in the last half of the suite, is a series of arpeggios starting on piano and concluding with flute in addition to soulful crooning by Kath in between. It would become a mainstay at proms and wedding dances throughout the ’70s. The cycle also displays Kath’s vocal versatility. The tenderness of “Colour My World” stands in sharp contrast to his bluesy vocals on “Make Me Smile.” The transition between “Colour My World” and “Now More Than Ever” is a full bore demonstration of classic Chicago sound.

Chicago IIThe highest charting song on the album, “25 or 6 to 4”, was keyboardist Bobby Lamm’s song about trying to write a song at the time of the morning. The opening bass riff not only sets the pace and the chord progression, it is virtually immediately recognizable. It is also one of the songs on which Kath actually displays his solo chops. It preceded the next multi-part piece on the LP, clearly the most divergent work.

Whereas “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” joyfully celebrates love, “Memories of Love” is a four-song cycle about the death of a lover. The first three parts – “Prelude,” “A.M. Mourning” and “P.M. Mourning” – are aptly named, carry strong classical music influence and are heavily orchestrated. Kath wrote the core while Peter Matz, an award-winning composer and arranger, provided the orchestration. It closes with the soft title song of the cycle. While beautiful, the suite suffers from the great contrast between it and the rest of the record.

The end of the album is reminiscent of the last side of Chicago Transit Authority. “It Better End Soon” is a four-movement political work. The second movement is essentially a Parazaider flute solo that builds from soft and straightforward to a hard-edged jazz exploration. The rest features Kath’s earthy vocals on an altruistic theme of political togetherness. Although provably never airing on AM radio, portions of the work would be recognized by those more familiar with the band’s radio hits. They constitute a similar refrain in “Dialogue,” a single from 1972’s Chicago V that would reach number 24 on the pop charts.

The album closes with bassist Cetera’s first songwriting credit, “Where Do We Go from Here?” It takes a softer approach to the theme of the preceding suite – coming together to make a better world. Sequentially then, the album creates a listening experience that spans styles and emotions.

Chicago II presented a unique amalgamation of rock, jazz, classical, and pop music, occasionally combining two or more in the course of one tune. Wilson’s remix provides a tighter and cleaner perspective that more clearly reveals how innovative it was.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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