Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review of Procol Harum's "Novum"

I (sadly) posted this review on the Sputnik Music Website earlier tonight. Wish I liked the album better.

Review Summary: The second half of the 2010's is where the great bands of the '60s and '70s go to die.

For fans of the great bands of the '60s and '70s, these are sad times. Our heroes are dying out. Many of them are literally dying, from old age and/or questionable lifestyle choices. Some are no longer able to sing or play their instruments capably. And for the bands still able to produce marketable music, most are a shadow of their former selves. Just earlier today, I read some good things about the new Deep Purple album, and that's great. But these days, for fans of the musical giants of the last century, we receive each new album with a mixture of excitement and dread; we hope that our former idols still have something left in the tank, but we fear that they'll embarrass themselves. And each release is bittersweet -- it could mark their last goodbye.

If I'm being honest, the last true Procol Harum studio album was their 1977 release, Something Magic. It was mediocre at best, but it was legitimate Procol Harum. The Procol I loved was a band that put epic fantasy to music. Wizards and swordplay, and strangers in space, this was the meat of Procol Harum. Although they had some amazing and creative musicians over the years like guitarist Robin Trower and organist Matthew Fisher, the two indispensable band members who made Procol Harum Procol Harum were songwriter/vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. Brooker provided the band's distinctive sound, while Reid brought the poetry. There really wasn't another band like them, and when they broke up in 1977, it was the end of an era.

The band has re-formed for several albums since then, including 1991's The Prodigal Stranger and 2003's The Well's on Fire, but while both Brooker and Reid were present for those albums, as was Fisher (and Trower was also back for Prodigal Stranger), they weren't really Procol Harum albums. The sound was different, and more importantly, the lyrics were mundane. Gone were most of the tall tails of gods, salty dogs and winged horses that gave the band their unique flavor, replaced with commonplace songs about aging and social issues. Don't get me wrong, both of these albums had some fine moments. But although I didn't want to admit it at the time, they weren't really Procol Harum. So now we have Novum

The most important thing you need to know about Novum is this: Brooker is the last man standing. Gone is Keith Reid, replaced as a lyricist by Pete Brown, best known for his collaborations with Cream and Jack Bruce. Fisher and Trower are also long gone. True, most of the other musicians on the album have been official members of the band for years -- just not the classic years. The lyrics here are once again about more earthbound topics than those of the vintage Procol Harum -- stories of businessmen and adulterous lovers have replaced those of reanimated corpses and conquistadors. As for the music, it's a pretty basic R&B style of rock, occasionally softened by Brooker's piano. This has always been a part of Procol's sound -- just not the best part. If you're a long-time Procol fan, think more along the lines of "Wish Me Well" and "Butterfly Boys" than "In Held 'Twas in Eye" or "Whaling Stories". There are also a variety of other elements mixed in here, including things that sound like Jim Morrison and the Doors, Steely Dan, Sting (instrumentally, not vocally), and even Johann Pachelbel. It's a bit of a hodgepodge.

I've got to be truthful here -- the first four or five listens, I couldn't hear anything memorable at all about Novum. The pluses of the LP are these: Brooker is still in amazingly good voice for a man of 72; and the band is definitely proficient -- there's nothing lacking in terms of musicianship. The problem is that most of the songs themselves are only average. Initially, I would have even said they were uninspired, although I now believe that's unfair -- Brooker is clearly inspired by them. I'm the one who isn't. I was hoping for a true Procol Harum album, and this just isn't it.

I will say, however, that when I listened to Novum on its own terms, there's more there than I initially heard. As a Procol Harum album, it rates no better than 1-1/2 to 2 stars. But as just an album (or as a Gary Brooker solo album, if you like), I'd give it a solid 2-1/2 stars. You might even add an extra 1/2 star if you're more of a fan of R&B than I am. 

The two tracks I came to like the best are a lighthearted keeping-up-with-the-Joneses song called "Neighbor" (which features some whimsical accordion), and a more serious number sung from the viewpoint of God called "The Only One". The music on some of the more topical songs like "Soldier" or "Businessman" is pretty good. It's just the lyrics that are a little paint-by-number. The album closes on a poignant note with a track highlighted by Brooker's wistful piano called "Somewhen".

Odds are this will be Procol Harum's last album. Maybe that's for the best. I guess that Novum adds a little extra luster to their legacy, although it's not even in the same stratosphere as albums like Shine on Brightly or A Salty Dog. Clearly, though, the second half of the 2010's is where the musical giants of yesteryear go to die. One can only wish there's some truth to lyrics of Novum's closing song: "And when we're gone/We'll meet again/Some way, somehow, somewhen."

Rating: 2.5/5 stars