In an era when even the Rolling Stones went disco, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Chicago--in the search for fresh material--turned to Bee Gee territory themselves. The recently re-mastered Rhino re-release of CHICAGO 13 has given me a chance to re-evaluate one of Chicago's most unpopular collections, and I've found that it's the disco album that isn't.
I think "13" is a better set than the previous year's HOT STREETS, but I also think that--as an attempt to update their classic jazz-rock sound--it suffers from the too-many-cooks syndrome. As with HOT STREETS, much of the blame has traditionally fallen on guitarist/vocalist Donnie Dacus. The single, "Must Have Been Crazy," is a Dacus tune, featuring his strained vocals and rhymes, and it's as bad a song as any Chicago's been associated with. Perhaps not coincidentally, CHICAGO 13 marks his departure from the group. But Dacus wasn't really as bad as many (including me) have said, and "13" doesn't sink or swim on his strengths and weaknesses.
"Street Player" is the opener. As the only overtly disco tune, it *is* famously lame, and even some monster horn lines and a guest appearance by famed trumpet master Maynard Ferguson can't save it. Still, one song with a disco-influence does not a disco album make, and "13" should not be unfairly categorized on the basis of "Street Player" alone.
Sadly lame, too, however, are Pete Cetera's "Mama Take," Bobby Lamm's "Paradise Alley," and Jimmy Pankow's "Runaway" (my vote for Jimmy's worst song--not something I write with joy, either).
There are some bright spots. Cetera groans convincingly on the bluesy "Aloha Mama." Lee Loughnane and Walt Parazaider contribute "Window Dreaming," the best tune on the CD by far (it even showcases a great Dacus guitar solo). "Loser With a Broken Heart" proves that not ALL Cetera ballads are bad. And percussionist Laudir de Oliveira makes his writing debut with the latin-influenced "Life Is What It Is," a nice surprise (though it features a surprisingly sub-par Pankow trombone solo--again, not written with any glee).
The Rhino remaster features two bonus tracks: the single edit of "Street Player," and a Dacus tune called "Closer to You" which blows "Must've Been Crazy" away (why wasn't THIS ONE picked instead?). The liner notes are briefer here than on previous Rhino re-releases; perhaps the band really had little to say.
All things considered, CHICAGO 13 undoubtedly documents a struggling group. While its reputation as a disco set is very much unwarrented, fans of the very early Chicago sound will likely be disappointed even today.