Thursday, March 31, 2011

Forgotten Music: Stone of Sisyphus by Chicago

When the seven guys formed the band that became Chicago, they had a mandate: create a sound that was a rock band with horns. And they did. Brilliantly. The first five years of their recorded output, Chicago walked the tightrope between longer pieces and radio-friendly shorter songs. Artistic craftsmen that they were, they knew how to write the three-minute pop song with the best of them. And, obviously, as the hits kept piling up, the pressure from the record labels to write singles kept coming. Then, when they had their first #1 hit, wouldn’t you know it was a ballad. From then on, for better or worse, Chicago became a ballad band. Sure, the fans knew the truth, but the casual radio audience (and the record executives) knew only one thing.

This kind of pressure had side effects. Outside writers were brought in to write a “Chicago ballad.” The horns became less of the fourth vocal component of the band’s sound and was relegated to the background, when they were even used. The composition of the band changed, whether through death or departure. Through it all, Chicago adapted. They made disco records that sounded pretty good. They incorporated the 1980s synth sound into their music and moved forward. And, as good as those 1980s records were, some folks got the impression that their heart was not in it.

When Peter Cetera left the band in 1985, the second replacement guitarist, Chris Pinnick, also left. Into the band came two fresh faces, Jason Scheff (bass and vocals) and Dawayne Bailey (guitars). Bailey was something to behold to suburban teenagers like myself. He looked like something straight out of Woodstock and had the stage presence to boot. Plus, he shredded like Van Halen. So, for the teenagers in the 1980s who thought that Chicago 16 was the band’s first album and that Chicago only sang ballads, the live concerts showed another side. Once again, Chicago was a rock band with horns. Don’t think so? Try “25 or 6 to 4” (1989); "Stay the Night" (1993); or “Along Comes a Woman” (1990).

But on record, it was still the same old soulless thing everyone had come to expect. Until 1993.

In 1991, Chicago released Twenty-1. It was a typical 1980s Chicago record complete with saccharin ballads and good album cuts brimming over with horns. During that summer, I, like other die-hard fans, couldn’t wait to hear those songs live. They never came. In the pre-internet days, we didn’t know why the band didn’t perform any songs live. And the one song they did—“You Come to My Senses” on Arsenio Hall’s show—was subpar. And that’s putting it nicely.

What we now know is that the members of Chicago had had enough. They wanted to make a record that *they* wanted to make, like they did back in 1971. And they found a producer, Peter Wolf, who shared their vision. In one interview, Walt Parazaider said that Wolf told him to bring all his woodwinds: all his saxes, flutes, clarinets. In that interview, Walt’s grin was huge. What was also huge was the enthusiasm within the band. You don’t believe me? Just listen.

The album that emerged was to be Chicago 22. It had heart and it had soul. The song “Stone of Sisyphus” kicks the socks off a lot of the material from the 1980s. Shoot, if you closed your eyes, you might even think that the seven young musicians called Chicago Transit Authority had transported forward from 1969 to 1993. Sappy love songs have fake emotions but I dare anyone to listen to the song “Bigger Than Elvis” and not get a lump in their throat. You see, Jason Scheff’s dad, Jerry, was the bass player for Elvis. Yeah, The Elvis. The song is about a young Jason watching TV, seeing his dad, and thinking it was his show.

Kick-butt rock songs and emotional ballads not enough for you? Well, how about funk? Mah-Jong, written by Jason Scheff but sung by the blue-eyed soul crooner Bill Champlin goes where no other Chicago song has gone before. And Jason really lets his bass playing shine here. Speaking of songs where no other Chicago song has gone before, how about rap? That’s right, rap. Granted, it ain’t Eminem or anything, but it’s Chicago does rap. And it doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds all right, too, to say nothing about the lyrics.

Lyrics. Remember back in the day when Chicago wrote songs wishing Richard Nixon would quit (“A Song for Richard and His Friends”), the plight of pollution (“Mother”), the burden of war (“Dialogue”) or the general dilapidated state of America (“What Is This World Comin' To?”)? Well, that’s okay. No one else does, either. They stopped recording those kinds of songs by the mid 70s. Sure, tunes like “We Can Stop the Hurtin’” surfaced every now and then but they were few and far between. Not on SOS. Those kinds of songs came roaring back, with “Cry for the Lost” and “All the Years.” The latter song has a bit of Chicago’s own history throughout the lyrics and, in a bridge section late in the song, a direct link back to their first record.

So happy were the guys of Chicago to be making a record they liked that they even penned a song lambasting the modern recording industry. “Plaid” told it like it was for all of us who didn’t know. Remember when I wrote that Walt was asked to bring in all his woodwind instruments? You got bass clarinet on this tune. Bass clarinet in a rock song! Can someone say Miles Davis and “Bitches Brew”?

When it was all said and done, all recorded and put on tape, the album that was to have been Chicago 22 had it all. They loved it, they were proud of it. They even decided to name the album “Stone of Sisyphus” instead of Chicago 22. It was to have been something different, something special. It was, to me, the most personal album Chicago had made since their last double LP, Chicago VII (when they basically made an LP for themselves [1st] and an LP for the radio [2nd]). SOS was also the most adventurous CD since VII. They were ready to redefine themselves as a rock band.

Give you one guess what the suits thought. Upon listening to this CD, the suits knocked Chicago to its knees. The suits shelved the CD because “it didn't sound like Chicago.” I bet these were the suits who thought 16 was Chicago’s first album. When the suits locked the demo tapes in a vault, never to be heard by anyone, some of Chicago’s heart and soul stayed in that vault. The band's reaction was where we are now. Dawayne left and, taking nothing away from his replacement, Keith Howland, Chicago ceased to be a *rock* band with horns.

The next two releases, Night and Day: Big Band, and Chicago 25 (The Christmas Album), demonstrated Chicago’s incredible talent for arranging and performing. The rest of the 1990s saw the release of two greatest hits packages and a live CD, each album coupled with two new songs. These songs were good, mind you, but were cut from the “now traditional Chicago sound” mold. None of the songs had the fire that SOS had.

The bootlegs began filtering out in the mid 1990s. I’ll admit that I acquired one. When some of the tracks made their way onto foreign CDs, I snatched those up, too. I did anything to get good sounding copies of these songs. And I took great joy, tremendous joy, in playing certain cuts of the album and asking people to guess who was singing. Even thought they knew me and my love of Chicago, they rarely guessed right. You see, Stone of Sisyphus was a unique album. It was an album by eight guys plus their producer making music that they liked. Not the suits. Not even their more recent fans. This was an album that lived and breathed freedom, the freedom they used to have back in the early days.

I still consider Chicago’s first two records to be their best. I put SOS at #3. It’s that good. And, with it being a bootleg, I could rarely share it with anyone other than to play songs in the car or at home. I never ever thought I’d get a chance to go to the store and buy an official copy of this monumental album.

This forgotten album found official release in 2008. Eighteen years later, Stone of Sisyphus is still my third-favorite Chicago album. It was the return of the Rock Band With Horns mentality. Chicago 22 may not have burned up the charts had it been released at the time, but the music was real. It was honest. It had heart. It had soul.

Isn’t that what we want from our music anyway?

Forgotten Music: March 2011

Welcome to the March 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. As always, if I missed someone (or if someone joins in for the first time), I'll add you to the summary.

Enjoy.

Bill Crider
Eric (Iren)
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Charlie Ricci
Perplexio
Paul D. Brazill

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do Some Damage Nominated for David Thompson Award at Spinetingler

Do Some Damage, the group blog of which I am a part, has been nominated for the David Thompson Community Award over at Spinetingler. Not only do I love blogging with seven other fantastic crime/mystery writers, I am truly humbled to be up for an award named after my late friend, David Thompson, of Murder by the Book and Busted Flush Press.

I congratulate the other nominees, especially fellow DSDer Steve Weddle, whose year-old, ink-on-paper magazine, Needle, has also been nominated.

Monday, March 14, 2011

CSI: Miami - "Hunting Ground" - Episode Review

It's been almost a year since I wrote my last recap of "CSI: Miami" for Bookspotcentral. One of the main reasons I stopped was the show's move to Sunday nights. Not only do I think CSI: Miami belongs on Mondays, but I also didn't want to have to deal with the vicissitudes of NFL games on Sunday. I didn't want to have to monitor shows I don't watch just to hope to catch the opening of Miami. (Actually, the CSI: Miami Facebook page did a great job at informing the public of the time delay all last fall.)


As this season has progressed, I've begun to wonder how fun the recaps would have been (had I been writing them) since this season's shows are mostly above average, across the board. I told my wife on Sunday, as we watched "Hunting Ground," that all involved with Miami must have been peeved about the time/date changes and wanted to make sure to produce higher quality episodes than normal.


"Hunting Ground" has already become a favorite of mine this season, and I've only seen it once. Granted, I have it running on my Mac as I write this, but I was immediately captivated, more than usual. The first thing that tipped my interest was the writer and director: Adam Rodriguez. For those of you who don't know, Rodriguez plays Eric Delko. I'm always fascinated when series regulars for long-running shows decide to step behind the camera. Usually, that's all they do, since these types of shows have their look and feel so firm that it's often difficult to distinguish one from another, even if the director was the lead actor (David Duchovney, "The X-Files"; Jonathan Frakes, "Star Trek: The Next Generation") or a stunt director (Quentin Tarintino, "CSI"). Not many actors decide to have a crack at directing an episode in which they star, fewer still take pen to paper and write one.


Frankly, I expected the show to be the same stuff. I was wrong. Yes, "Hunting Ground" had the familiar visual tropes of Miami: perpetual sunset, funky optical effects during the lap sequences. Rodriguez, however, brought a little something different to the table. He showed angles I'd never seen before, visual effects (sub-titles) that were fresh, and just enough uniqueness to make this episode stand out from the rest.


Then there was the subject matter: humans hunting humans. Modern television cop shows deal with some serious stuff, gruesome at time, immoral at others. Humans hunting humans is pretty over the top. But, as my wife mentioned, for every episode, there's a real-life headline somewhere.


The darker subject matter gave David Caruso another opportunity to show his dark side. Yes, folks, he has one, so please stop rolling your eyes. Horatio Caine is among my favorite TV cops that I've ever had the pleasure to watch. Most often, we get to see his compassion, especially with the children. It's that quality--present from episode one--that enamored me to him. But his dark side can be quite scary. It's not giving anything away--(spoiler if you want to see the show)--to say that the CSIs find the culprits. Caine, shotgun in hand, delivers his own brand of justice in a manner distinctively his own. Yes, we viewers want Caine to blow a hole in this guy's abdomen. Yes, we might have cheered had that happened. But, we're talking about Horatio Caine, a character who probably had the same urge. But if he can allow his wife's murderer to go to prison rather killing him outright, you knew Caine was never going to create that hole. Still, Caine made his point.


Another wonderful trait of this episode is the character interplay. Rodriguez, as an actor in the show, might have just a tad more insight into his character and those of his co-stars than mere writers since he's the one speaking the words. That isn't to say that writers (!) can't find the inner nuance of a character, I'm just saying I enjoy the little things in this episode: Frank's interview with the orchid guy ("Orchids?!"), Natalia and Ryan in the field with Ryan “experiencing” nature, Caine and Wolf as partners in the field, an unspoken connection between the two. Even Horatio got to perform his patented compassion when he had to break the bad news to the new widow and the new fatherless child. The little gesture of touch he gives her, and the camera, focusing on his hand on hers, the dreadful soberness on Caruso's face was flawless.


It also directly led to Caine's first small step over the line. When CSI: Miami began, Caruso wore a lab coat more often, the science being the number one thing. As the years have moved on, Caine is now more a cop with a little science thrown in. Too often in modern forensic cop shows, the science gets the bad guy. Nowadays, Caine uses the evidence presented him and makes educated guesses on a criminal's next move, using not only his intuition but also his cop sense. Immediately after consoling the new widow, Caine threatens a person of interest with branding. You see, the victims, the men who are prey, have been branded. Caine got his information, but he didn't have to go all Jack Bauer on the guy either. Thing is, Caine could if he wanted to. He just dances up to that line, occasionally puts a toe over it, and then moves away. Shows he's human, and yet, knows there's also the law.


I have loved CSI: Miami from day one. Over nine seasons, there are few episodes I don't like. None come from this stellar season. "Hunting Ground" is already one of my favorites for the year, and probably will end up being a well-remembered episode for the entire run of the show. If I had my way, I'd get Adam Rodriguez to write and direct at least one episode per season from here on out.


For anyone who hasn't watched CSI: Miami in a long time, seek out this episode. (Facebook has it; so does CBS.com) I suspect you'll enjoy it. For those of you who don’t give it a second thought, give it a try. You might be surprised.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Enter Abraham Lincoln

On this day, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States of America. Thus, changed the course of history...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review Club: Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

This is the March 2011 Edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

In order to get a good handle on this book, you're going to have to use your imagination. Think of a celebrity chef, one that specializes in French cooking, but not one of those bombastic ones. Now, add a dash of detective, the old-school one from the golden age of the detectives. Not one of those obsessive compulsive detectives like Monk or Peroit, but a newer vintage. Now, set a story in the provincial countryside of France, mix well with a little dash of murder, a lot of good food, and you pretty much have an idea of the character of Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police.

I don't particularly like the word "foodie" but that's the modern term for people who like food, the preparation of food, the discussion of food, and pretty much all things about food. Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, I guess that makes me a duck, or a foodie. So, when I received Walker’s book out of the blue last year from the publisher asking for me to review it, I had no idea who Walker was much less his character. But blurb at the bottom of the trade paperback cover sold me: "a nice literary pairing with the slow-food movement…" That's a quote from Entertainment Weekly, and, to paraphrase "Jerry Maguire," it had me at "slow-food movement."

Benoit Courreges is the chief of police in the small French Village of St. Denis. But to all the people in the village, Courreges is simply Bruno. He lives by himself in a restored farmhouse, he showers outdoors, he walks around the village every day, and the hardest part of his job, as the book opens, is helping all the purveyors of the various traditional French food markets avoid being fined by the European Union's food investigators. Along the way, Bruno extols the virtues of good coffee, good food, where to get the best truffles after the rain, and the languid life of a country policeman.

Enter into this pastoral scene a murder. The victim is an elderly Algerian war hero, who fought for the French in Germany in 1945 and later in Algeria. What makes the murder of Hamid particularly offensive is the swastika carved into his chest. Seeing as he is an immigrant, the local villagers began to suspect that the murder was an ethnic killing. Naturally the politicians see opportunity and descend on St. Denis like ants at a picnic. French-born residents of the village don't like all the attention paid to their small little town, and start to chafe against all the unwanted attention. Naturally, it's up to Bruno and the national police, including one young female policewoman, Isabelle, to solve the murder and avoid any political difficulties. And, since we’re in France, a budding romance blossoms as well with all the shadowed delicacy of Bruno’s former life as a soldier in Bosnia brought to the fore.

Walker is the senior director of the Global Business Policy Council and formally worked for the Guardian of Great Britain. The historian part of me relished all of the intricate details about France during World War II, the deep-seated animosity between the Vichy French and De Gaulle’s group, the immediate post-war period, the Algerian war, and the war in Vietnam before the French left in 1954. The history aspect is a gift, but there is one better: the food. It's a rare day when I can read a book and start a hankering for the food that the characters are eating, but it happened all the time and this book. The descriptions are so good that you can hear the bread crust crunching under your fingers, you can smell the yeasty goodness that only comes from French countryside bread, making your mouth water with lust. He even makes the water—the water!—sound like the sweetest thing you'll ever taste on the Earth.

I’ll say this about the book, though it's not really a criticism, but it has to be noted. The book has a languid pace. If the cover blurb references the slow-food movement, you could almost call this a slow-mystery book. Not a lot happens on the surface, but a lot happens just below the surface. This is a book filled with nuance, and subtle characterizations that I've found very appealing. You go into various online sites—including Audible.com, where I downloaded the audio book—and you'll find comments from some reviewers that state the book was boring. One man's languid is another man's boring. I didn't find the book boring in the least, but, then again, I love food. So during the times when the mystery part of the book stopped, the characters were usually talking about food, something I enjoyed. If you are a reader who doesn't like discussions of French food and its preparation, or if you like your mysteries to possess a more rapid pace, Bruno, Chief of Police might not be the book for you. Rather, if you enjoy all those BBC productions we get here in the States via PBS, glorious descriptions of food, and a character that has enough of a complicated back story that makes me, at least, want to know more, I recommend this book.

You could almost call this a summer book since the story takes place in the summer and the descriptions and actions bring to mind one of those bright, Mediterranean Monet paintings. This book is like a brochure at a travel agency: it makes you want to visit France. You can, with Bruno as your guide. You just can't eat the food.

P.S., Walker has created a fun, little meta-fictional blog as written by Bruno, complete with recipes and other food discussions.







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