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Vinyl Cave: Chicago Transit Authority by The Chicago Transit Authority

The Chicago profile page at the online sales giant presents what is presumably an official biography of the band, penned by William Ruhlmann. A concise wrap-up of its milestone successes, brief downturns and personnel changes over the years, the bio somewhat snarkily starts by noting that sales figures for the group, as tabulated by Billboard, are second only to The Beach Boys for American rock bands, and goes on to offer a mellow renewal of the band's usual complaint about the indifference-to-animosity displayed by many music critics over the years.

Thankfully, four-and-a-half decades past the release of their debut album, the critical voices are gradually catching up to the general public's assessment: Chicago is a great band, more experimental and hard rock even in later years than is usually recognized. It's to the band's credit that they've stayed out there swinging, too; the current incarnation of the group includes founders Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walt Parazaider, and Jason Scheff has been in the fold since the mid-1980s. They return to Madison for a concert at Overture Center on Monday, April 28.

Sketching from the Ruhlmann bio, most of the band that would appear on Chicago Transit Authority initially began gigging around Chicago in 1967 as The Big Thing, eventually adding bassist and singer Peter Cetera. Manager (and Columbia Records staff producer) James William Guercio financed the group's to move to Los Angeles and got them a contract with the label. They took a royalty cut to ensure their debut release was a sprawling double LP of long-form tracks, which thanks to FM radio support sold well without the help of a hit single. When AM radio caught up, several of the first album's tracks did go on to be Billboard chart hits, in heavily edited form. It could be argued Columbia somewhat undercut the group's new material by the practice of releasing older material in competition with the new, but the big sales numbers probably were hard to dispute.

One additional benefit of new hits from past albums is that it meant the early albums continued to sell well over the years ... apparently well enough that in the mid-1970s, Chicago took the somewhat unusual move of having their earlier titles remastered and prepared for pressing outside of Columbia's well-regarded facilities. The group had started getting their new LPs mastered by The Mastering Lab (TML), and they also prepared a series of reissues of the earlier titles.

From the examples I've heard, TML cuts are often quite a bit better sounding than a typical original copy; in particular, Chicago II is much improved. They also typically sound better than many of the cuts which came later; at some point (probably after the band left the label), the mastering went back in-house to Columbia. There have been a couple other notable different masterings over the years: A Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi) audiophile LP emerged in 1984, and currently in print is a Rhino LP mastered by Chris Bellman. (There's also a quadrophonic release, but I haven't found one of those ... yet.)

For a dedicated and/or obsessive record collector, this is the sort of information that can lead to people asking, "Why do you have four copies of this album?" Well, uh ... because they're different. But occasionally sanity, full crates and the fear of being featured on Hoarders intervene, and some extras have to go. It's time to do a shootout with Chicago Transit Authority, and in the interests of others who may be intrigued but don't know where to start, here's what I found. Some of the terminology may be "inside baseball" for those who aren't obsessive collectors, so I'll apologize in advance if something is a bit incomprehensible!

I'll start with the original as a reference baseline. The initial pressings (Columbia GP 8) were issued with the '60s era 360-sound two-eye labels. My copy has machine-stamped matrix numbers in the deadwax (the area without music by the record label), so it's early but not the very first run, which are found with hand-etched matrix numbers. The song I picked to specifically A-B on each pressing: "Questions 67 and 68," which starts side two. One thing I have noticed in general with the 360 copies I've heard over the years is that the horns can sound a bit crunchy/very slightly distorted sounding, both on this track and at other times throughout the album.This copy sounds very nice and tonally is well-balanced, with a bit of grit to the overall sonics. After comparison to the other versions, I'd say the individual parts don't come across as clearly on this copy, though. As is typical for Columbia, the pressing quality is excellent, but the trick with the pre-TML pressings is finding a copy that's not played out or scratched up.

The reissue mastered by TML (Columbia PG 8) takes the balanced tonality of the originals and adds a bit more clarity to the sonics. On this copy, the individual parts of "Questions 67 and 68" stand out more clearly than on the original, and the horns are a tad crisper, if still with that warm, on-the-edge of distortion Chicago sound to them. It's also cut a bit louder than the original -- and it sounds great the more you turn it up.

I'm not generally a big fan of the '70s-'80s era Mobile Fidelity issues. They're generally really great LP pressings, but always sound a bit EQ-tweaked to me, and often are flat out not particularly "better" sounding than a clean original-label pressing -- the Steely Dan titles Katy Lied and Ajacome to mind). The '80s MoFi of Chicago Transit Authority (MFSL-2-128) somewhat matches my preconceptions on "Questions 67 and 68." In direct comparison to the original, the MoFi is really in your face, and can get sort of wearing if listening at high volume. It sounds as if both the treble and bass have been boosted a bit, though I kind of like the effect on "Questions...." Suspected EQ tweaking aside, this album does have the clearest sounding horns. Surprisingly for a MoFi, it's also cut a lot louder than the 360-sound Columbia.

The currently available Rhino LP pressing (R1 76171) sounds as if Chris Bellman was perhaps trying to match the tonality and sound of the TML mastering. Like that reissue, it has an edge in clarity over my original 360-sound pressing, really evident in the vocals and cymbals on "Questions...," and is also cut a tad louder. The bass may be just a bit more prevalent here than on the Columbia and TML cuts. The Rhinos were manufactured at Record Technology Inc. in California, so the pressing quality is good.

Out of curiosity, I wandered down to MadCity Music Exchange to see if I could snag one of the later Columbia cuts out of the dollar bin, and it took about 30 seconds to find a copy which dates from fairly early in the '70s. In my memory of past listens to a few of the garden variety pre- or post-TML Columbia releases (on the '70s/'80s-era label design), they typically do not sound quite as good as the original 360-sound pressings. However, this somewhat beat down copy does sound better than my 360. On "Questions...." it's just a shade off the current Rhino version. Dropping the needle around a bit, some other points sound a tad crisper than the Rhino. Well, shucks.

So, what does all this mean for someone who has decided he or she wants a copy? Basically, the curious can pick up just about any pressing in the dollar bin that's still in good shape and get a decent version to learn about the music. For anyone who really gets into it or those looking to upgrade, there are some variants to be found which are better sounding and also not made of unobtanium. A four-sided TML reissue is not as commonly encountered as the Columbia-mastered LPs, but when you do find one it's also more likely to be in good shape than an original -- and probably still only cost a few bucks. If you don't enjoy crate digging, the Rhino LP can still be found new and also sounds very good.

As far as what's leaving my stacks, the MoFi goes first. But it'll take some more thought about whether to keep the TML or the Rhino! And, apparently, I could find a better 360 copy ... though, realistically, I won't be going out of my way to do so.

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