Nostalgia is a powerful thing, evoking memories half-buried in our consciousness. As a pre-teen sitting cross-legged on the floor of my childhood bedroom, I experienced Chicago’s second album for the first time, something I dug up and recovered from its undignified home in the family basement. Though it is now thirty years removed from this memory, I still recall the fresh air wafting in from an open window mixing with the slight smell of mildew and the revelation that mom and dad’s records represented a golden era of musical virtuosity and experimentation. Eventually, I collected more Chicago records. These now nostalgic objects are in their fifth decade of life and not always the best listening experience.
Despite the romantic nostalgia that original vinyl records bring, Chicago’s classic era catalog deserves modern technology. To the delight of every generation of fans, Rhino Records has delivered, remastering not just the familiar stereo mixes but also the elusive quadraphonic mixes. The Chicago Quadio box contains nine Blu-ray discs, all the albums that were originally released in quadraphonic stereo. Each disc contains both the quadio and master stereo mixes in DTS format. I will leave a technical description of this format to someone more qualified to explain it, but basically in addition to left and right speakers in front of the listener, a quadraphonic stereo system adds left and right rear speakers. Audio engineers in the final mixdown have four channels instead of two. (In a room set up for quadraphonic stereo, the listener should be in the middle of a square with four speakers, one in each corner.)
The quad mixes of VI and VII stand out to me as the definitive way to listen to these wonderful albums. (Chicago VII will be reviewed in future posts.) While Chicago II remains my favorite album from their classic era, the quad mixes of their mid-70s efforts have given me new appreciation. Probably not incidental with regards to sound quality, Chicago VI was also the first album recorded at Caribou Ranch recording studio, a more technologically modern facility for its time compared to their previous recording home at CBS 30th Street Studio. While a vinyl record takes me back to my childhood bedroom, the quad mixes make me feel as if I’m at Caribou while they were recording these classics. Yes, they are that good!
In terms of content, Chicago VI is something of a departure from the classic Chicago sound. In an article posted on Chicago’s webpage, “Robert Lamm: Top Ten Records That Changed My Life,” the singer/songwriter cites the album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as an inspiration for showing him how powerful a statement music can make without embellishments. Robert was drawn to “this kind of bare bones, raw aesthetic.” His appreciation for stripped-down arrangements is interesting considering the layered vocals and his and Jimmy Pankow’s exhilarating horn harmonies that defines the Chicago sound. It is here on their fifth studio album that they experiment in depth with some sparse arrangements. While promoting VI, Jimmy told Circus magazine in an article published in September 1973 that up to that point, “everything’s beginning to sound the same,” providing some insight into their non-formulaic approach of 1973.
The album opens up with Robert Lamm’s “Critic’s Choice,” the pure and rich tone of the acoustic piano panned in all four channels complementing the insistent and effected vocals. If “Critic’s Choice” is a weighty song, Jimmy Pankow’s classic “Just You ‘n’ Me” lifts the mood, kicking off with its now iconic horn riff. The lead vocal ably sung by Peter Cetera is less adulterated on the quad mix as compared to the stereo mix, letting the emphasis shift from the vocal to the brass, woodwinds, and lovely backing vocals. Cetera’s vocal is confined to the phantom center channel, panned to left and right front but not rear). Terry Kath’s rhytm guitar is also more apparent in the quad mix, not getting overpowered by the horns on the quad mix at all. Throughout the quad mix each instrument occupies its own sonic place, the technology giving everyone in this big rock band the chance to be heard. The sound from four speakers envelops the listener. The drums are also alive with sizzle and presence, much clearer than the stereo mix on either vinyl or compact disc.
The famous Chicago Horn section shines in quadio, blaring in all their glory. Walter Parazaider’s soprano saxophone on Just You ‘n’ Me embraces their psychedelic rock band with horns ethos as it travels ethereally between the left and right channels. His natural dynamics on his highest register sax are even more apparent and particularly appreciated. I only wish that the studio version of Walt’s solo was extended like they play in concert.
Guitarists should also appreciate the quad mix as this album shows off Terry Kath playing some of his most bluesy guitar, particularly on “Darlin’ Dear” and “Rediscovery.” Vintage pictures show Terry playing slide on a heavily customized Gibson Melody Maker with the majority of its body cut off. On my vinyl copy of VI (not mom’s this time, something I picked up at a used record store), Terry’s guitar sounds buried, but his unique slide guitar is newly revealed on “Darlin’ Dear” in quadio. Another welcome moment that feels like clouds parting to reveal the heavens is the Hammond B3 played by Robert during the ending of “What’s This World Coming To,” the kinetic energy of the rotating Leslie speaker is felt as well as heard! This song also features Walter on baritone, his lowest register saxophone in a funky arrangement with the brass.
“Something In This City Changes People” and “Hollywood” are almost a mini suite, one flowing into the other and united by their common themes. The former song was broadcast live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour featuring three-part vocal harmonies by Robert, Terry, and Peter. Perhaps this live version overshadows the studio recording, but it’s a stand out track nevertheless and the first time Lee Loughnane’s slight raspy voice was heard on its own during the classic era. He’s an underrated singer reminiscent of Dennis Wilson at his best. The quad mix shows the effectiveness of the sparse piano and acoustic guitar arrangement, highlighted by Walter’s alto flute solo at the end. Closing out the album is “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” a hit song and concert staple to the present day. It is, however, the one tune on the album in which the stereo mix is superior; the electric piano driving the rhythm gets somewhat lost in the quad mix.
To sum up and put Chicago VI into context one should remember that in 1973, Chicago seems to have been under much pressure, mostly from clueless critics with quixotic agendas but little musical knowledge. The audience was also fickle, and Chicago were feeling bored with the current music scene. Even in that milieu, the quadio mix of VI reveals just how earnestly Chicago was about the craft of making music as they balanced the challenge of remaining commercially relevant and making sincere and creative statements with their music. Chicago VI is a great album that transcends format but the quadio mix has done it the best justice it deserves. However, in 1973 Chicago’s most eclectic and sonically wonderful work is just around the corner…
(Lee Loughnane, Terry Kath, Walt Parazaider, and Jimmy Pankow in all their rugged glory inside the gatefold of VI.)