Becky's Reviews of Chicago Albums, CTA through 17
Release Date: 1975
Cover Design: Embroidered Patch
Proves Cover Theory: Yes
Becky Rating: VI out of X
THE NOSTALGIA ALBUM
One assumption I had going into this Chicago album review project was that Chicago VIII was a lousy album. Having listened to it all the way through for the first time in at least fifteen years the other day, I realize that isn't true. VIII has the unenviable task of following up a hugely popular, successful, and eclectic album that presented the best musicianship Chicago had to offer. Just as Harry Truman will always be overshadowed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, VIII will always be overshadowed by what went before.
VIII is almost a concept album about nostalgia, particularly on the second side. Robert Lamm begins with a blatantly old-timey sounding tribute to Harry Truman, containing one of the few instances in which Walter Parazaider plays clarinet. There's a weird slowness in Robert's voice which is probably supposed to be some sort of tribute to older music, but to me it sounds sort of like he's on Benadryls. I wonder why a former student at Roosevelt University didn't write about that president instead? Maybe because Truman played the piano?
(Interestingly enough, when Rhino released a best-of-Chicago compilation in 2002, "Harry Truman" was Chicago's only chart hit that was not included. Some think this may have been done as not to offend the Japanese market; some others think it's the strange sound and novelty nature of the song.)
Terry Kath then contributes his own musical and lyrical remembrance of the great spirit of Jimi Hendrix, directly quoting Purple Haze in the guitar solo. It's spooky and cool at the same time. Lamm returns with "Long Time No See," in which he addresses an old friend. He allows Peter Cetera and Kath to trade lines in "Ain't It Blue," the album's only direct reference to the music business, in which Robert sounds totally fed up.
Finally, James Pankow closes out the side with "Old Days", which remembers his own childhood of baseball cards, comic books, streetcars and Howdy Doody. Cetera reportedly hated this song and refused to sing it live because of the Howdy Doody reference. This line also creates an interesting problem for the current lineup of Chicago - both of the current tenor singers were born long after Howdy Doody was popular. It sounds ridiculous to hear a man in his 30s singing this line! Maybe if he could change it to H.R. Pufnstuf?
The first side is not as memorable. It includes two Cetera rockers (how did this guy end up singing so much wimpy stuff?) and a very Steely Dan-sounding song called "Brand New Love Affair." Kath revisits his old groupie days in "Till We Meet Again."
There's no 1975 vibe on this album at all. There's none of the old Chicago vibe, either - the horns are very controlled and don't ever go off on little jazz tangents. Nobody gets a solo and there are even a few songs with no horns at all. Everyone just sounds tired. And where the heck is new group member Laudir de Oliveira on Latin percussion? Don't worry, he'll make up for it on future albums. I'm giving Chicago VIII a solid VI because it's better than I remember it, but not good enough that I'd pull it out and listen all the way through again.
I have to mention the album's memorable packaging, particularly for those of you who have grown up in the CD era. VIII included a full-color poster of the band piled into an old "woody" station wagon - it's the first of the police-chase photos that will be featured through Chicago XI. There also was a free iron-on T-shirt transfer of the album's cover logo - see 13-year-old me wearing it here! That cover logo, by the way, is my favorite Chicago cover.
(c) 2001 and 2002 Becky Banfield for Dos Gardenias Productions