Music Review: Chicago, Chicago II (Steven Wilson Remix)

“This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.”

When the band Chicago made this statement 47 years ago in the liner notes to its second album (eponymously named but commonly known as Chicago II), it could never have foreseen today’s digital music environment. Despite that, it reflects one of the things I dislike about music today. Then, albums were put together in a specific order to help reflect the intended theme or structure the band intended. What with downloading individual songs and the shuffle function, that era seems, sadly, to have died.

Two things likely stood behind the band’s (which shortened its name from Chicago Transit Authority after receiving a cease and desist order from the city of Chicago) recommendation. First, as a two-LP recording, there was a specific structure to its four sides. Second, the band’s intent was to continue to explore and meld a wide range of styles. Yet even though the album 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 Chicago III was released a year later.

Despite the sound issues perceived by many, the album launched the band onto the U.S. Top 40 singles and Top 10 album charts. Rhino Records is acknowledging the anniversary of Chicago II‘s initial release, with a remix by British progressive rock musician and producer Steven Wilson. (Ironically, the release also came the week in which guitarist Terry Kath died from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978.) 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 album.

Chicago II Steven Wilson RemixWhile the band’s debut, Chicago Transit Authority, used strong horns and driving guitar in what was called jazz rock, the follow-up blended a wider 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 remix reflects that, except for a couple solos, Kath’s guitar is less prominent than on the Chicago Transit Authority, this version reveals more nuances. Likewise, the drums seem crisper and the demonstrates first. The remix continues that but remix reveals more nuances. 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 ten. 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 with a 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 “Color My World” stands in sharp contrast to his bluesy vocals on “Make Me Smile.” The transition between “Color My World” and “Now More Than Ever” is a full bore demonstration of classic Chicago sound.

The 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 rift not only sets the pace and the chord progression, it is virtually immediately recognizable. It is also one of the song’s on which Kath actually displays his solo chops. It preceded the next multi-part piece on the album, 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. 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 is Paazaider 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 Peter 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.

What once you thought was a paradise is not just what it seems
The more I look around I find the more I have to fear

Chicago, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, Chicago II

1 comment to Music Review: Chicago, Chicago II (Steven Wilson Remix)

  • Boyd Knosp

    Nice review. I still listen to this album off and on, but it is of course split up into various play lists on my phone. I try to keep the suites together though. Chicago V is also nicely sequenced, although digital versions have additional tracks that lose the effect of the sequencing of the original LP.

    Can’t think of many modern albums that seem to be purposefully sequenced (outside of classical or theater music), but I don’t often sit down and listen to an album in it’s entirety.

    I found a youtube of Chicago playing the songs from II in concert, it was interesting to watch and starkly free of the production put into almost any modern concert.

    Thanks for reviewing. Enjoyed seeing what you thought of something I listen often (usually on a long run or bike ride).

    Guess I’ll have to get the remix and see if I can hear the difference.