Now (Chicago XXXVI)
by David Chiu
At the time of its release in 2006, Chicago XXX could have been considered Chicago’s best album to the date as a return-to-form for the band after the power ballad-laden records of the ’80s and early ’90s. But that opinion has to be revised in the wake of Chicago’s latest album Now, which is truly the strongest and brilliant effort from the band in recent memory. Now does something that most veteran bands rarely achieve – striking that perfect balance between recalling a group’s glorious past (in this case the ’70s) and yet sounding fresh and contemporary today. The record gets off to a great start with the soulful and empowering title track, sung by bassist Jason Scheff, which sounds very reminiscent of classic Earth, Wind and Fire. After that opener, it’s one good track after another, especially the songs written by keyboardist Robert Lamm, who probably makes the most lead vocal appearances on a Chicago album for the first time in years. The music from his compositions, which have always been both lyrically introspective and socially-conscientious, is very ambitious as it is eclectic – there are traces of Middle Eastern and electronica on “More Will Be Revealed” and “Naked in the Garden of Allah.” To the band’s credit, most of the songwriting was done in-house and without mostly outsiders penning those romantic ballads. For die-hard fans, there are a couple of numbers on Now that will take them back in time to the era of Chicago VI, VII, VIII, XI and Hot Streets: the upbeat rocker “Free at Last” (perhaps a nod to the band’s 1971 song “Free”), the freewheeling “Nice Girl” (with an electrifying guitar solo from Keith Howland), and the romantic-sounding “Watching All the Colors.” The only ballad that is on the record – the tender “Love Lives On” – is actually quite good. Most importantly, what still remains intact is the signature horn section of James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walt Parazaider that appears on every song and still sounding hot. Based on the new record, perhaps it’s time for non-fans and critics to reevaluate the band’s deserved place in rock and roll history. If Chicago had to fold tomorrow, Now would be a fine effort to end a career on. But after being together for over 45 years, it doesn’t seem likely – and it shouldn’t.