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Stone of Sisyphus (Chicago XXXII)
Artist: Chicago
Label: Rhino Records
Times: 11 tracks plus four bonus tracks/69:42 minutes

I've been a Chicago follower since I was 13 years old, just three years after this band--in the vein of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse, and others--merged jazz with rock and roll (long before "fusion" was a popular term), and I had great interest in grabbing a copy of Stone of Sisyphus since I heard a national news broadcast that the band was releasing this 15-year-delayed project in June 2008. In short, it's not exactly Smile by the Beach Boys (finally released by Brian Wilson), but it's very significant, at the very least, as a history lesson for folks who have followed Chicago from its inaugural Chicago Transit Authority project to the present.

The history lesson: in 1992 (after the release of Chicago 21), the band was, according to the liner notes of this project, "struggling to survive" by putting hit records on the charts yet wanted to return to its roots. That's exactly what I did not like about Chicago since I preferred the rocking "Feeling Stronger Every Day" to the huge hit, "Just You and Me" ballad from Chicago VI. I almost wrote off Chicago with its tenth album when "If You Leave Me Now" sickened me with its constant radio airplay but still listened for glimpses of the full band's involvement. They were far and few between, with a 1986 re-recording of "25 or 6 to 4" from the band's 18th album. Relegated to the hit machine for Warner Bros Records and the band's dissatisfaction with this process, Chicago presented its first three recordings for its 22nd album to Warner Bros, produced by Peter Wolf (the former Frank Zappa keyboard player--not the J. Geils Band lead singer), with positive results. Wolf and Chicago moved forward, completed Stone of Sisyphus in 1993, and took it to Warner Bros, whose new brass rejected it immediately, as "the worst Chicago album ever," noting they'd release it but would not promote it. The band cut its ties with Warner Bros, shelved Stone of Sisyphus, signed with Giant Records (ironically, a subsidiary of Warner Bros), and recorded Big Band: Night and Day, a big band covers project, which certainly gave its horn players all the due they deserved, but the single, "Chicago," was given airplay on beach, boogie and blues stations and took the band out of the top 40 hunt for good.

Fast-forward to June 2008: the band has been signed to Rhino Records, best known as an oldies and re-release label (get your Monkees and Dr. Dimento recordings here), and after Chicago's exit from Giant, we finally have a CD worth buying.

In 1992, Chicago wanted to exit the top 40 ballads formula, and while some of the formula is still there, every single song of _Stone of Sisyphus_ returns to the horns-guitar-bass-drums sound instead of putting its horn players in as incidental musicians. The overall feel of this project is merging what was hot in the late '80s to the early '90s with what worked well with Chicago's fine trumpet and woodwinds from the '60s through '70s. Any fan of Chicago from the earliest era will be nearly satisfied.

Why? New vocalists, guitarist Bill Champlin and bassist Jason Scheff (solid replacements for Terry Kath and Pete Cetera), were hitting their strides in leading a group looking to its roots. Scheff's "Bigger Than Elvis," with gorgeous piano from founding member Robert Lamm, would have made an excellent top 40 hit (producer Wolf recorded Elvis' The Jordinaires from Nashville as background singers).

In keeping with reviewing this missing Chicago album for The Phantom Tollbooth, listeners will take issue with "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed," a rap manifesto, and enjoy with "Here With Me" ("A Candle For the Dark"). And the band includes the mantra from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, "the whole world's watching," within "All the Years"). The title track is taken from Greek mythology, a way the band explains its return to its roots. While I like it, please listen carefully. (As of this writing, Chicago has not updated its official website of this release.)

In issuing this recording, which was intended to be Chicago's 22nd album, the band includes four demos as bonus tracks. They're well worth the listen. As a nearly four-decades-long listener of Chicago, my only issue--and it's a big one--is that there are no "jams" as Chicago did from its inception through Chicago VII. That's the only reason for the subtraction of one tock. Otherwise, Stone of Sisyphus (Chicago XXXII) is worthy of a listen to anyone who has ever heard of the band Chicago.

Olin Jenkins 
June 22, 2008

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