I don’t think there’s a band on the planet that’s done a more thorough job of repackaging its hits than Chicago — and in the 20 years since scoring its last meaningful hit, the band has really cranked the compilation machine into overdrive, churning out best-ofs, ballad collections, live albums, anniversary sets, and any other type of reissue you can think of, as well as a few you probably haven’t. So when the Chicago catalog was folded under the Rhino umbrella some years ago, I had my doubts as to whether their partnership would amount to anything meaningful; the remaining original members of the group seem to be more interested in cashing checks than adding to their increasingly debatable legacy.
Rhino, for its part, has done a pretty solid job of managing the Chicago vaults. Though they haven’t been able to resist the urge to continue flooding the marketplace with dumb crap like Love Songs, they did remaster the band’s back catalog, reissuing it with expanded artwork and bonus tracks (at least up through Chicago 17; the label seems to have no interest in revisiting the post-Peter Cetera years). Rhino was also responsible for bringing Chicago’s long-delayed “lost album,” Stone of Sisyphus, to market, along with Chicago XXX, the band’s first album of new material in 15 years.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Chicago is all but completely an oldies act at this point, and their increasing indifference toward new material has left Rhino with little choice but to get creative with the catalog. So they’ve gone back to the beginning — literally — by reissuing the band’s first album.
Chicago Transit Authority? Yet again? Well, yes. But you’ve almost certainly never heard it like this.
For all the reasons I listed above, and many more, I was a little disappointed when I heard Rhino would be releasing a quadrophonic version of Chicago Transit Authority. Yeah, quad sound is cool, but there isn’t a Chicago fan on the planet who hasn’t heard CTA more times than he can count. Hell, I was born in 1974, became a fan of the band with Chicago 16, and I’ve always regarded CTA as a druggy blend of pop hooks and silly horseshit — and I still don’t ever need to hear “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” again.
I didn’t think I needed to, anyway. But I was wrong. Despite my steadily growing disdain for all things Chicago, and despite the fact that I only pulled this assignment because I was the only guy on the staff with a surround sound setup and the willingness to listen to CTA one more time, I was blown away by this DVD. (Yep, it’s a DVD — don’t go trying to play this in your car.) If you’re a Chicago fan (and even if you’re not), you know most of these songs by heart, but these crisp, immersive mixes put you inside them, just like the groovy graphic on the dust cover insert promises. The tracks are crystal clear, but they sound warm, not processed; you can hear everything, from various bits of in-studio muttering to the ringing final chords. Turn it up — way up — and stand in the middle of the room. You’re right there. The experience gave me a new appreciation for an album I’d never had a lot of use for, and made me sad all over again that these talented musicians seem to have drowned their creative spark.
Of course, CTA isn’t a perfect album, and no mix in the world is going to make a real song out of the pompous, atonal mess that is “Free Form Guitar.” But if a band is going to ask its fans to pony up for the old stuff one more time, this is the way to do it — by delivering the goods in a new and legitimately exciting way. If you love Chicago (and you’ve got the right gear to play it with), the Chicago Transit Authority quad DVD is well worth your $29.98. If it can put a smile on the face of a lapsed fan like me, you’re going to positively love it.