Chicago XXX

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Despite the possible euphemisms of the title, 2006's Chicago XXX is not the band's raciest album since Hot Streets, nor is it their installment in the extreme-action spy series kicked off by Vin Diesel -- instead, it's the veteran group's first proper studio album since 1995's flop Night and Day: Big Band, and considering that was a detour into retro-swing, XXX is their first mainstream pop album since 1991's Twenty 1, which is a 15-year gap between pop records. That's an awfully long wait -- in the meantime, the band has been putting out live albums, Christmas records and hit comps, bringing the total up to 30 LPs -- but apart from the diluted trip-hop beat from "Feel (Hot Single Mix)" that kicks off the album, you'd never know that XXX was made and recorded in 21st century. It sounds like it could have been released in 1991 as Twenty 1, since it contains the same kind of sunny good-time pop and power ballads that made Chicago a staple on adult contemporary stations in the late '80s. But there is a difference this time around: XXX is actually a better overall record than anything the group released in the wake of Peter Cetera's departure. Song for song, it's memorably melodic and Jay Demarcus, best-known as a member of contemporary country-pop act Rascal Flatts, has given the album a bright sheen that is nevertheless varied, punching up the horns on "Better," emphasizing the sweet melody on the "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" dead ringer "King of Might Have Been," turning up the guitars on "Caroline," a happy variation on "Look Away." It sounds as if Chicago and Demarcus went into the album with the intention that this would be a hit along the lines of Chicago 19, and while that kind of wishful thinking may not be fulfilled -- there are very few radio stations in 2006 that will play this kind of slick adult contemporary music -- this sense of purpose and drive has resulted in a surprisingly strong, thoroughly entertaining comeback album that's actually better than the albums it intends to emulate. It's not for every Chicago fan -- those who long for either the early-'70s or early-'80s heydays will find this too produced and MOR for their liking -- but fans of Chicago's late-'80s albums will find themselves right at home on XXX.

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