The undertaking of a concept album is always a tricky proposition. The sad truth with regard to the endeavor is that once the artist runs out of songs, or simply runs out of ideas that bolster the overall concept, the artist is nonetheless restricted to the conceptual limitations they’ve imposed upon themselves. The other difficult question one must always ask is: how relevant, or perhaps, how meaningful is the concept in the first place? Robert Callender’s Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is, as one might imagine, a concept album dealing primarily with the history of the Impressionist movement, but it also serves as a veritable who’s-who gallery of the French Impressionists (well, mostly — the roster also includes Vincent Van Gogh for good measure). And in the interests of fairness, despite the nature of Callender’s early Indian-influenced output, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is not the Eastern-tinged sitar fest replete with Gallic flourishes one might expect based solely on the album’s cover art.
Long considered lost (or at any rate, among the most difficult to find psych rarities of its time prior to this reissue), Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme was initially released in the early ‘70s (allegedly in 1972) on the Philips label as a small pressing exclusively in Holland, which might help explain Van Gogh’s inclusion. The record features lyrics sung in French and English, in fairly equal proportions. Musically speaking, the record is a sumptuous mélange of jazz, soul, progressive, and psychedelic rock. As a concept album, however, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is frustrating, if not confounding. Let’s be forthcoming about this: given the times in which we’re now living, and the innumerable idiomatic paradigm shifts the world of popular music has undergone toward the nihilistic and egocentric, concept albums of this sort do not age gracefully. Though Callender’s homage to the Impressionists borders on the touching at times, the historical and biographical nature of these tracks has the tendency to come off as tedious.
It’s hard not to suppress a snicker when encountering lyrics such as, “Monet, Monet, Monet, ooh, ooh / I’m singin’ about Claude Monet”; “I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec / I said I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec”; or, worse, “Mystical madman / mystical, but truly a very sad man was he,” in reference to Van Gogh. Considering the astonishing grandeur of the arrangements, which fall somewhere between the off-kilter, psych-inflected eccentricities of David Axelrod and the slick but capable production values of the Motown era (Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra project even comes to mind on several of these tracks), it’s regrettable to hear these baroquely crafted suites marred by Callender’s cloying bathos. Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme would have been a hardcore crate digger’s dream come true if not for the oppressive profusion of Callender’s admittedly well-intentioned but overly verbose lyrics.
To his enormous credit, and despite the record’s shortcomings, Robert Callender assembled a stunning cast of musicians for Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme, which, ultimately, is majestic, operatic, and epic in its scope. Callender’s arrangements are highly complex without being pretentious and feature deftly played proto-funk musicianship that has the overall effect of sounding slightly ahead of its time. Callender expertly blends psychedelia with R&B and jazz to create an album that, though conceptually antiquated and anachronistic by today’s standards, is elegantly meticulous in its execution all the same.