Reviewed by Peter Bourne for BtP
Novum (Latin) – novelty; something new; unheard of; unprecedented. New lamps for old? Probably not - the fire burns (and shines on) brightly.
I think I’m going to have to tread lightly here, as this review follows from those at BtP – especially those from three masters: Richard, Bert, and Charlie – all three of which I urge you to read, if you haven’t already. These gentlemen have vastly more experience listening to and writing about Procol Harum recordings and concerts than do I. Collectively, these three reviews make a significant contribution. If I sound like I’m feeling a little intimidated, it’s because I am. But it just occurred to me that, in this group, we hear from, respectively, two Americans and a Scotsman. Fitting perhaps, as Americans (and Canadians) made up a large percentage of the initial fan base. That has changed – since the early days, Great Britain has gradually and finally decided that Procol Harum is something to be really proud of. So. Perhaps a few jottings from Canada, then? My (modest Canadian) contribution to the body of work? I hope you don’t mind ... (said he, in his polite Canadian way).
This album has been, of course, on my ‘must-have’ list since long before its official release. However, I should mention that I’m rather old school in that I’d rather wait for the official release rather than falling for the hype, panting with impatience, trying to find twenty-second clips so that I can say, “I’ve heard it!” (like reading the dust jacket and maybe page one of a book and then saying I’ve read that). If it’s any good, I thought, it’ll be worth waiting for, and I’d rather hear it in the comfort of my listening room on my (rather modest but good) home stereo, preferably with no one in the house but me to allow for judicious volume as, needed. Or …. there’s headphones, I suppose. And … read and admire the lyrics, program notes and cover art while listening. Life’s simple pleasures. Life, I love ya. All is groovy (as Paul Simon once wrote about fifty (!) years ago).
So, I finally sprung for a CD copy, and sure enough, Novum has been worth the wait. And then some! Quite simply, off the top (at the risk of gushing), it’s probably the best work, overall, I’ve heard from Procol Harum since, probably, A Salty Dog (1969) or maybe Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974 – which album Novum probably most superficially resembles – As Strong As Samson, among others, would have fitted right in!). The ‘First Three’ (60s albums) will always remain my favourites (3,2,1, in that order) – those were from the classic band (Procol Harum 2.0), and with all due respect to everything that came later – from Home forward – (a lot of which was tremendous), those first three albums were what hooked me, and were indescribably influential to us and to the rock ‘field’ in general. However, lest anyone think I’m trivialising (relatively) that post-ASD material, nothing could be further from the truth, as they say. We all (most of us) know and love the latter material; indeed, some rank higher the likes of Home and Grand Hotel. No problem with that – all well and good. I respect that.
Of course, we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the release of A Whiter Shade of Pale – without which none of any of this might have happened. (One report talked about “The 1970s (sic) band Procol Harum [that] wrote (sic) the song A Whiter Shade of Pale” – as if that was it!). Of course, we also must remember (and it’s rarely mentioned – the hype value of ‘anniversary’ often outweighing any pretensions to accuracy) that this discontinuous fifty-year period had a gap of seventeen years – Procol Harum effectively didn’t exist between 1977 and 1991, but finally four of the ‘original’ members (Brooker, Reid, Fisher, Trower) reunited, adding a very good rhythm section, for the very worthy (mostly) album The Prodigal Stranger. Brooker, Reid and Fisher with Whitehorn on guitar (as Trower left again) then carried on, adding Matt Pegg and Mark Brzezicki, touring and then recording the wonderful The Well’s On Fire twelve years later.
So, here we are, 43 years on from EB&F and fourteen years on from Well's, with a few changes: Josh Phillips now on organ and synthesisers, who had replaced (the nearly irreplaceable) Fisher after Matthew left in 2004 (probably for the final time as, shortly after, he launched the lawsuit claiming and eventually gaining co-composer credit for A Whiter Shade of Pale); Whitehorn and Pegg remain, of course; and ‘new’ drummer Geoff Dunn, who assumed the stool in excellent fashion (he’s been around since before they recorded One Eye To The Future in 2007), replacing Mark Brzezicki, who had been present for The Prodigal Stranger and The Well’s On Fire and many live recordings and concerts up to and including Union Chapel. And …. of course, the intrepid septuagenarian constant Gary Brooker, who had started it all with Keith Reid, the only ’fifty-year man’ and hence the only original member.
Let’s get something straight, right away. There was seemingly no attempt to ‘update’ the sound on Novum (unlike that of Prodigal Stranger, at times), nor trying to cater to the ‘kids’ or break new ground – it’s straight-ahead grown-up classic rock. And it does really rock; hard in places. I think their motivation for recording Novum was, as much as anything, a case of wanting simply to offer some newly-recorded material to fans old and new, in the style they’d become comfortable with. As Gary said or implied somewhere, “It was time”. BtP's ‘Fiftieth Anniversary Tour’ badge says ‘Unique Entertainment’ – well, that says it all if anything does, and so it has been for the last fifty years or so. Nobody else, before or since, has done it the way they pioneered it in 1967, and again in 1970 (with Home). There are no surprises here, therefore, but there’s still a freshness to everything – probably because what they did, and still do, is timeless.
So, in my humble view, I think this album is every bit as good as anything they've ever done, and they’ve done it effortlessly. They have absolutely nothing to prove, and it’s a real pleasure to hear a band of veteran players simply enjoying themselves because of that. The fact that having the only remaining original member is no disadvantage – Gary’s voice has always been well taken care of (Ricola!? – check the ‘Thanks to’ section of the album credits), and of course he has always been the principal composer. And, from another review, “He also single-handedly saved the key of E-flat from virtual extinction”, which is, I’ve heard, the ideal 'singing key'. Also, E-flat major is often associated with bold, heroic music. Of course! Sadly, though, for many of us, the co-founder and Procol’s wordsmith, Keith Reid, is absent and has been replaced, largely (and quite well), by Pete Brown, performance poet, lyricist, singer, famous for having worked in a similar capacity with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in and after the days of Cream. Some of the songwriting has been shared with the other members of the band as well. All eleven songs, except Image of the Beast, Soldier and Somewhen are credited to “Gary Brooker, Pete Brown, Josh Philips, and Procol Harum (!) – Image adds Geoff Whitehorn, Soldier is Brooker, Philips and ‘Procol Harum’, and Somewhen is just Gary. Interestingly (to me), the only two songs with which Brown is not associated (Soldier and Somewhen) are the ones that move me the most, on an emotional level.
This version of the band has been thoroughly road-tested; the excellent guitarist Geoff Whitehorn has been there since 1991, and he and bassist Matt Pegg (son of Dave of Fairport Convention) were present for their last studio album The Well's on Fire, from fourteen years ago, and also well worth checking out. Organist / synth-player Josh Phillips almost makes us forget Matthew Fisher, who had been at least partly responsible for many of Procol's iconic tunes from the past, especially A Whiter Shade. Finally, drummer Geoff Dunn and bassist Pegg make up one of the best rhythm sections in rock. This long-time performance experience allowed for a quick recording. Reportedly, most of it was done “off the floor” with minimal overdubs. There are two advantages to this: the studio recording costs are obviously reduced, and the recorded songs are ‘stage-ready’ yet have allowed for orchestral arrangements, when applicable.
The album consists of eleven songs, ten of which appear to be related to the Ten Commandments (see ‘appendix’ below); however, lest there be any misinterpretation or jumping to conclusions, this album appears not to be, by any means, 'Christian rock' or its ilk (or at least was not intended to be, as far as I know).
The music certainly does have that distinctive classic-rock feel, sometimes reminiscent of the likes of Foreigner, Steely Dan, Supertramp, Toto. Every track seems to be reminiscent of something, which is not intended to be uncomplimentary. Frankly, a good deal of the album recalls, if anything, Gary’s solo work (I’m thinking No More Fear Of Flying) rather than 'old Procol'. But make no mistake – although Brooker is the senior member and the undisputed leader, this is very much a band, a seasoned group of very good players with tremendous chops and chemistry – not ‘solo Gary with sidemen’. Gary’s admiration of his mates’ abilities is by now well known. Emphasising the ‘band of brothers’ feel, most of the music is credited to ‘Procol Harum’ as co-composer (this is unprecedented), and often cites several band members individually in that capacity as well.
I offer some song-by-song comments (see the ‘appendix’ below). Suffice to say that this album is well worth seeking out: it is also available as a double-vinyl LP, (as such, it’s quite expensive), and in a (similarly expensive) Japanese CD version – the Japanese disc (maddeningly!) includes an extra track (Honour) as well as a ‘single’ version of Sunday Morning. So for a lot more, you get a little extra. Hopefully, Honour is or will become available as a download, but that’s not the same, in my view. If it fits the album (as I think it does), then it should be there – worldwide (more on this beef, below).
I can’t close without mentioning two people who were part of the team that put this album together. Dennis Weinreich, a transplanted Californian, produced (check his pedigree!) and reinforces the idea (mine, anyway) that the world is divided into two kinds of record producers: the ‘hands-on’ guys (inevitably guys) who not only guide the sessions, but occasionally (or not so) contribute ‘occasional percussion and BVs, etc.’, and have in general inserted themselves into the record in an obvious way. Then there are those who are essentially the opposite: more laid back – they’re ‘there’, but unobtrusive, generally hands-off, but always supportive, making suggestions but ultimately deferring to the (sometimes contrary) wishes of the artist. I sense Dennis acted more in the latter capacity on this record – a kind of ‘Chris Thomas approach’, I think. A bonus is that Dennis, unlike others, has since been a keen participant in the Procol Harum Facebook pages and has been very generous with his time and wisdom. He has given freely to all of us much of his insight and experience into the making of Novum and, by extension, the recording process. A good friend to the band and to us – thanks, Dennis.
Secondly, the artistry of designer/illustrator Julia Brown (King) has resulted in probably the most beautiful of Procol Harum album covers (and that’s saying something!). As a picture is truly worth a thousand words (although I’ve been known to ignore that aphorism!), I needn’t point out that the main cover is an ‘updating’, if you will, of the fifty-year-old Dickinson picture of the self-titled album’s ‘pale lady’ plus incorporating other elements – notably, she has captured (among other things) the detail that Matt Pegg, in fact, plays a five-string bass! With respect to the design, she puts it better: “There are features that fans will be able to spot, referencing other album covers (including their eponymous début from 1967), plus I took influence from some of my favourite artists and illustrators including Arthur Rackham and Edward Heath Robinson.”
Novum is therefore highly recommended, in whichever format you choose.
As a sort of appendix, I offer my attempt at a Novum / Ten Commandments (King James Version) concordance. Each Commandment, where applicable, is cited in bold font (underlining its ‘bossy’ importance J), along with a few of my observations on the songs:
1. I Told On You – (IX) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. A quiet little piano intro – a beat of silence, and then – BAM! – a classic rock power chord, and we’re off! ('The genes you were streaming / Sure made me shiver' – I wonder what that’s about? Was Keith corresponding secretly with Mr. Brown?)
Last Chance Motel – (VII) Thou shalt not commit adultery. The 'country number' – all the elements: cheatin’, hurtin’, truck stops, etc. Reminds me of something the Amazing Rhythm Aces (Third Rate Romance (Low-rent Rendezvous)) – thanks, Richard Beck, or Emmylou Harris (Feelin’ Single, Seein’ Double) might have done. Really great country-rock feel: Gary’s Floyd Cramer-like piano, and in particular Geoff W’s pedal steel-like fills, which remind me of (the late and truly great) Clarence White and his patented Second-String bender (supposedly worked best on a Telecaster!).
3. Image of the Beast – (II) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness, etc.... A finger-wagging attempt at moral suasion, very obviously in the spirit of its associated Commandment. (“Obsessions will never cease … Shekels, Rands, Pounds and zeros / Creepy priests, iconic heroes / And always in the image of the beast”). The song evokes Steely Dan, and the opening Hammond organ note invokes briefly the opening bars of another, early Procol Harum song … quite rightly so, I might say J (thanks, Bert!). (Procol will do this occasionally, showing their sense of humour – remember Matthew Fisher's AWSoP-like opening to Weisselklenzenacht which, for a note or two, would get audience members pretty excited!)
4. Soldier – (VI) Thou shalt not kill. Easily the most moving song on the album (except perhaps Somewhen, for other reasons). The chorus brings a few tears, every time I hear it. I can add no more, as Richard Beck has echoed my sentiments exactly. What stupid gits we humans are!
5. Don’t Get Caught – who knows? Is there an ‘unreleased’ Eleventh Commandment such as “Thou shalt not allow thyself to get caught doing what thou should (probably) not have done” – perhaps? Or, maybe simply ‘stretching’ some of the existing Commandments, maybe (such as VI, VII (especially!), VIII, and X)? Has there been ‘progress’ down the years?
6. Neighbour – (X) Thou shalt not covet ….. (various things) “He’s my neighbour, but I wish he didn’t have to live next door” – from the chorus, pretty much sums it up. A jaunty, ditty-like tune in a Caribbean style, which was played, in its inaugural concert setting, with Gary on accordion and several young ladies with ukuleles and singing backup. The record version has “laughter at the end [which] shows Gary enjoyed it!” (Thanks, Charlie!)
7. Sunday Morning – (IV) Remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. A beautiful (the favourite of many), quiet, contemplative paean, relating to the (Christian) Sabbath. Fittingly, Pachelbel’s Kanon, complete with string ensemble, opens and repeats in the main tune. Once again, Gary has seamlessly injected a classical theme into a Procol Harum song. Great sentiments from a ‘non-nine-to-fiver’!
8. Businessman – (VIII) Thou shalt not steal. Self-evident. All I will add is this: when I was doing some MBA coursework some years ago, there was a move afoot to introduce a 'business ethics' course to the curriculum. Didn’t happen, as there was no will to do it at the time (the acquisitive 80s/90s). As someone pointed out at the time: can you spell ‘oxymoron’?
9. Can’t Say That – (III) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Let’s hear for Matt Pegg – this one (among others) shows what a great player he is – touches of Jaco Pastorius here and there (did he use a fretless bass?). Same feel (lyrically) as Image of the Beast. Reminds me a bit of Still There’ll Be More - “If you blaspheme about my schemes / I’ll make sure that you’re gone”, another way to have someone’s Christmas blackened.
10. The Only One – (I) Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Lovely gospel piano-playing reminiscent of Let It Be. A kind of apologia spoken in the First Person – if you get my drift (“… it was just an accident / I didn’t plan it out … I am the only one / And I am in your head …) This one is stately (as befits), and would appear to be the closing number. But, no …. Gary has the last word … (proper t’ing, as Newfoundlanders say)
11. Somewhen – no Commandment / instruction here, as such, simply Gary’s very pretty and heartfelt love song to his beloved Franky (Mme Françoise). I can honestly say that Gary’s sentiments echo mine (forgive my personal sentimentalising) exactly regarding my own beloved, whom I married 20 June 1969) – less than a year after Gary married Franky. Interesting that ‘Françoise Riedo’s’ occupation is ‘au-pair girl’ which has an … intriguing sound to it. Similarly, in our case, having been married in Quebec, which had/has some strange and archaic legal requirements of would-be married couples, ‘occupations’ had to be accurate. When our documents were drawn up, I was a ‘salesman’ (that record-store gig). She, although she worked at a similar job to mine, had to be referred to as ‘minor child’ – taking precedence to any ‘occupation’. In any case, the Commander (MBE) puts this more elegantly than I ever could.
Honour - (V) Honour thy father and thy mother. (Japanese release only.) This one seems to relate to this ‘missing’ track– which only (so far) appears on the Japanese CD - (“ … in the world of record company workings it turned up on the Japanese version…”, as someone said) – those powers-that-be in their wisdom apparently decided to exclude Honour from the ‘western’ release of the album. More than a few people are ticked off by this omission – we Procol fans are a little … shall we say, possessive of our/their music, and it’s a travesty that we in the 'west' should be deprived of a release-ready song that some ‘suit’ thought only the Japanese market was deserving. Infuriating! As to Honour’s status as representative of a Commandment, I can only go by the speculations of the good Dr Lancelot Reaper, who wrote to 'Beyond the Pale' three weeks before the official release of Novum. I don’t expect anything to happen, but they could re-release the album worldwide with Honour included – if Skylarking, XTC’s legendary album contents could be played with, why not correct this injustice?
© Peter G. Bourne 2017
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