The Sound of Chicago II, By: Stephanie Carta

The artistry of Chicago II and its place of honor in Chicago’s canon is unquestionable, regardless of the format. It would be impressive if heard over a transistor radio. Chicago’s second album incorporates rock and roll, jazz, and classical influences into a four-sided journey with these different strains of music absorbed and re-imagined by these seven musicians. Chicago II including the suites: Jimmy Pankow’s Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon and It Better End Soon, a collaboration between Robert Lamm and Terry Kath featuring Walter Parazaider on an extended flute solo. The second side starts off with a 2:34 minute sweet pop song, Robert Lamm’s Wake Up Sunshine, seemingly tailor-made for retrograde AM radio but never released as a single. The orchestration on the Memories of Love suite is reminiscent of The Moody Blues’ album, Days of Future Passed (1967) and on Beatles’ songs such as Eleanor Rigby. Even with disparate styles of music on II, the album flows together with perfect synchronicity. As the liner notes state in a direct message, which I read for the first time thirty years ago as a preteen Chicago fan, and symbol of the earnestness of the album and its song order: “This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.” 

Chicago II is a revered album, and I greeted the news of its being remixed by Steve Wilson, whose previous work including remixing Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, with excitement and also some trepidation. There is a substantial difference between a remix and a remaster. For those unfamiliar with recording techniques, think of making any typical rock album as a multi-step process. First, instruments and vocals are recorded on tracks, starting with the rhythm section, and then overdubbing the rest of the instruments and vocals. Chicago II is a 16-track recording, and all recordings from the 1970s and prior were analog recordings. While listening to this record, as well as Chicago Transit Authority, I often think about the challenges posed to the engineers* of Chicago’s earliest albums who had to put a seven-piece rock band onto so few tracks. While this was a manageable task with typical rock band instrumentation, the horns required separate tracks for the arrangements, usually double-tracked, and the solos. The recording engineers at CBS Studios were in charge of this entire process, from setting up the studio, placing the microphones, recording the musicians, and then mixing and mastering the album. Producer James William Guercio was limited in what he could do as only those who were members of the CBS union could use the equipment in their studios per standard practices.   

Once the recording is finished, the individual tracks of the song are mixed, adjusting things like frequency, volume, dynamics, and where each particular track will be heard in the stereo spectrum. The next step is mastering for release on a physical format such as a vinyl record or compact disc, with the mastering engineer ensuring that the full album has a cohesive sound. The remastering process that takes places for usual reissues does not touch the individual tracks. A remix, however, goes one step further back in the process. The task of remixing Chicago II by Steve Wilson involved digitally remixing the 16 individual tracks of the album. In essence, Wilson was able to overwrite the work of the CBS engineers and create something that was very different than what we are used to hearing. However, Steve Wilson stayed close to the original mix of the album, producing a clearer and cleaner mix than Rhino’s previous remasters of Chicago II.

Remixing any classic work by an iconic band is something like playing God. If there is one moment in Chicago II where some divine intervention might be helpful, it is during the horn solos following the soli section on Movin’ In. Walt belts out an alto sax solo, full of passion and dissonance, his shout out to the free jazz movement, beautifully ironic that it was recorded in a studio with so many rules as CBS. Jazz fans might have been reminded of Ornette Coleman or some of John Coltrane’s freer works from the last phase of career. Lee Loughnane on trumpet and Jimmy Pankow on trombone then take the solo section back down to earth, all together forming a symbolic and attention-grabbing moment on the first song of the record. In the original mix and the remix, this part of the song has some odd dynamics, the comping louder than the solos, and it would have been more powerful to hear the solos louder and much more present in the mix. In comparison, on Ballet the original dynamics are something close to heavenly perfection.  

Chicago’s history recording at CBS Studios in New York City from 1969 to 1972 is, sadly, not well documented. They worked in studios where if the walls could talk, they would tell large chapters of American musical history. Usually, Chicago recorded at Studio B at 49 East 52nd Street, home to recording engineer Don Puluse. Occasionally, brass was recorded at the studio known as “The Church” at 30th Street, a studio that was particularly suited to big orchestral groups and big bands who were recorded playing live as a group, originally onto three or four tracks with little or no overdubbing. Engineers of Chicago II include Don Puluse, Brian Ross-Myring, and Chris Hinshaw (who famously conspired with The Byrds to break the studio rules). The remastering engineer of Chicago II, Robert Honablue, was the first African-American engineer at CBS Studios.  

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Don Puluse, engineer for Chicago II, on a mandatory union lunch break at the Wienerwald Restaurant in Times Square, New York City. Photo courtesy of Jim Reeves.

The work of the CBS engineers was truly commendable considering the milieu in which they operated, and no remaster would sound good if the source (the master tape) was faulty or deteriorated. The best reissue of Chicago II shows the beauty of their work as it was done in 1969, released on dual-layer super audio compact disc (SACD) by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. However, MoFi reissues are limited editions, and it is now out-of-print. MoFi remasters their releases using the original master tapes that, in their words, “exponentially expands the soundstaging dimensions, imaging proportions, and dynamic information, allowing the songs to breathe and enjoy a roominess that enhances the stellar performances and interwoven structures.” The tape hiss of the original master is actually noticeable louder on the SACD, making the experience feel and sound closer to the source recording, as if one were listening to the master tapes in a studio. Even though it is a digital format, this SACD retains the warmth of analog, especially noticeable on the naturally resonant baritone voices of Robert Lamm and Terry Kath which have a presence on this remaster that is especially appreciated on Poem For the People and Colour My World.

The original sound quality of Chicago II was limited by many factors, the physical characteristics of the studio facility and the limitation of the recording equipment available to them at the time. With today’s technology, audio engineers have limitless options. MoFi’s reissue preserves the analog warmth, while the Steve Wilson remix embraces the advances in digital mixing and emulation. Wilson has taken heed to respect the integrity of work done by those brave and talented men at CBS records. The MoFi SACD revealed the beauty of the recording techniques and studios, a vintage sound that is still appreciated and emulated with new electronic technology. If Chicago were to remix their own works using the best available technology of today, I can only imagine just how beautiful the result would be.

On the other side of the audio spectrum, for Chicago fans who would rather listen to their “old records,” the Friday Music reissue of II is the best way to listen to Chicago II on vinyl, preserving the sound quality and familiar experience of playing a record. Friday Music uses 180 gram weigh records, a slightly heavier record than the first original pressing of Chicago II by Columbia Records. This reissue was remastered by Lee Loughnane and the founder of Friday Music, Joe Reagoso, using the Chicago Records master tapes.

While vinyl lacks the enhanced frequency range and extremes of stereo separation of the digital formats, many Chicago fans will appreciate the analog warmth and replication of the original listening experience as you remember it, perfect for introducing your children or grandchildren to vinyl records. These pristine new records are free from skips and pops and come in a replica of the gatefold record cover, with each record housed in an anti-static sleeves. This whole package is a faithfully reproduced by Friday Music, lacking only the poster, but reminding me of my initial discovery of a vintage copy of Chicago II in the family basement but without the deterioration caused by years of improper handling and storage (which happened before I claimed it).

The re-release of The Beatles catalog in 2009 on two boxed sets, stereos mixes for modern tastes and mono mixes for purists, showed how the newest technology and processes could make recordings from the 1960s sound even better. While Rhino’s Chicago Quadio box on Blu-ray appealed to the audiophile market, new reissues on compact disc would appeal to a larger audience. The new transfers from the master tapes of The Beatles catalog for the ‘09 reissues were a large factor in the improved sound quality and expanded frequency range, greatly improving upon the first remasters when The Beatles were first put on compact disc in the late 1980s. Chicago’s catalog deserves the same respect as The Beatles has been given. Whether new remasters of the classic era of Chicago were packaged together in a box set or sold one-by-one, it would be worth my money to repurchase Chicago’s first eleven albums again.

* Tim Jessup, Chicago’s current sound engineer, and Jim Reeves, recording engineer at CBS from 1969-1972, have kindly shared their insights with me. The work of audio engineers tends to go unrecognized, but it truly makes a difference.  

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Lee’s portrait for the poster inside Chicago II. Photo by Herb Greene.
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Three of my copies of Chicago II. Top: Friday Music LPs. Left: Rhino’s Steve Wilson Remix. Right: MoFi’s SACD.

 

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Film Review – Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, By: Stephanie Carta

To great fanfare and anticipation Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago premiered on CNN on New Year’s Day. Filmmaker Peter Pardini and Chicago have collectively produced a definitive history of the band, extensive enough to delight long-time fans and concise enough to tell their story to a wider audience and for the posterity of rock and roll history. This film cuts through the mystery and the myth, and to tell the tale Pardini intersperses vintage footage and photographs with original interviews and stylized cinematic recreations. Earlier in the year, the film debuted at several festivals, winning the “Best of Fest” audience choice award at its debut at the 2016 Sedona International Film Festival and also the People’s Choice award at the Fort Myers Film Festival. A release on disc with bonus materials is forthcoming. Since its showing at the festivals, the film has been updated to reflect Chicago’s long overdue 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.      

Now More Than Ever transcends the genre of rock documentaries. Most importantly, the film retains focus on why their story is important and compelling: the quality of Chicago’s entire catalog of music and their bond as a band of brothers. Peter Pardini brought a refreshing perspective to documenting Chicago’s history on screen. He is the nephew of Chicago’s keyboardist and vocalist Lou Pardini and has worked with the band on projects for the past five years. Chicago’s sound engineer Tim Jessup took the film from the theater to our living rooms by mixing it in stereo specifically for the CNN Films broadcast. Those who saw it at the festivals were treated to the full 5.1 surround sound mix, and it is hoped that the 5.1 mix will be available when the film is released on disc so audiophiles can hear the soundtrack as it sounded in theaters.

A culmination of three and one-half years of work by a dedicated team pays off in a forever endearing and glorious ride through the history of a great American rock band. The editing of the vintage footage, a perfectly paced narrative, and recreations elevate the film to cinematic grace. Pardini’s possesses a delicate sense of perspective, creating the effect of the viewer as a fly-on-the-wall for the most iconic and prescient moments: the lights on the piano keys symbolizing Jimmy Pankow’s divine inspiration leading to Just You ‘N’ Me and the “flashing lights” of Robert Lamm’s 25 or 6 to 4. The use of the chimes from Fancy Colours as a harbinger and symbol of their most difficult moments throughout the film was truly clever.    

From Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and (especially) Lee Loughnane, we see their honest emotions, their humor, their strength as people who have been tested and came out stronger, and, in the end, the grace of their years is touching. It is now forever impossible to call them a band without a face. The 1960s and 1970s are a time often clouded in a mist of nostalgia, but though the clarity of hindsight and maturity, an unvarnished picture emerges from their remembrances. Robert Lamm breaks down the myth of Caribou Ranch. It was the “devil’s playground” in his words, not really a creative community but an isolated and hedonistic milieu that was a “recipe for disaster.” Robert also emphasized how they navigated a changing culture throughout the decades, and by extension the sheer impossibility of the band and music staying the same.

Chicago always spoke to me across time, dusty records found in old crates and at tag sales, intriguing because their music was so unlike anything else I had heard and yet unknowable because there was so little of substance written about them before the digital age. My experience as someone two generations removed from the classic era of Chicago meant that most of their history is new to me. It was a different time when they were a young band, when music was a social experience and Chicago Transit Authority spread via word of mouth and FM radio on campuses, the old school version of “going viral.” I was thrilled with the additional insight into Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, “a series of classical movement sewn together” in Jimmy’s words, all the movements except Colour My World originally conceived with Baroque titles. I can also imagine all the inspiring words in Robert Lamm’s lyric book that maybe never made it to record. Lee’s early feelings, fearing fame and feeling inadequate as compared to his bandmates, tells something about his current drive and dedication to his trumpet and also about the quality of music for which Chicago has always been known. Yet, with all the romanticism of the past, I felt a sense of admiration for the men they are now.

Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago is a compelling lesson in talent, ambition, adaptation, group dynamics, hardship and terrible loss. Out of one tragedy comes an affirmation of life, and that is the grace of the men who carry on the legacy of their brother Terry Kath. Ultimately, Chicago’s story is one of perseverance and rebirth. It would be ever more heartwarming should this film introduce another generation to Chicago’s artistry and break down the misconceptions of them as merely a ballad band or something belonging to your parents. With the wide reach of CNN, that transmission has surely happened already. I wholeheartedly recommend this film to fans of all ages and also as an introduction to those beyond their loyal fanbase. Any musician will learn from their story what it takes to stay grounded in a musical vision while being dynamic and flexible at the same time. 

Congratulations to Peter Pardini, Chicago’s wunderkind filmmaker, for letting this story tell itself and creating a comprehensive and exhilarating historical overview in one gorgeous film. Thank you Lee, Robert, Jimmy, and Walter for your wisdom, for dedicating yourselves to the music you share with us, and all the sacrifices it entails. In the end, we learned the story from the only people qualified to tell it, Chicago themselves. While recording the Chicago Transit Authority album, Walter said, “this is gonna be forever.” Amen to that.   

(John Honoré as Terry Kath. Photo courtesy of Peter Pardini.)

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