Procol Harum remasters series (CD reviews)

Procol Harum remasters – (Salvo Records – Union Square Music) – CD review

As part of an ongoing project to upgrade their catalog, Procol Harum has just released the last four albums they issued with their original lineup from the Seventies.  All have improved sound, previously unheard bonus tracks and extensive liner notes, including rare photos and memorabilia.

Classic Album – Procol Harum – Grand Hotel – (1973)
Procol Harum got lumped into the Prog rock category, probably because many of their songs were epic in scope and had some classical underpinnings.  But, the band was so much more.

And, unlike most Prog bands, Procol Harum rarely resorted to wanking – showing off their musical prowess.  They had some long songs, but they always had a clear direction.

The Grand Hotel was a logical next step for the band.  They were coming off the surprise success of Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra from the previous year.  That album proved to be their biggest chart success in the US, reaching #5.  Procol Harum decided to bring the orchestra with them into the studio and the results were one of their most satisfying albums in their catalog.  The LP opens with the title track, an incredibly epic piece that begins with a somber piano, then transforms into a classically-infused middle, with rolling drums and choir.  It immediately switches gears with the thunderous rocker “Toujours L’Amour,” featuring some searing guitar work from their newest member, Mick Grabham.  There’s also room for some social commentary with “TV Ceasar” (bemoaning the effects of television) and “A Souvenir of London” (the misfortunes of venereal disease).  “Robert’s Box” has a Steely Dan-like chorus, and is still a live favorite.   The whole record has a warmth in the instruments, despite Chris Thomas’ larger than life production.  They’ve unearthed two alternate versions: “Grand Hotel” before they added orchestra, and “Bringing Home the Bacon” featuring their previous guitarist, Dave Ball.

Classic Album – Procol Harum – Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974)
After sharing the spotlight with an orchestra for their last two LP’s, Procol Harum decided they’d had enough and returned to a more straight-ahead approach for Exotic Birds and Fruit.  Straight-ahead still means great diversity in the hands of this band.  The opening track, “Nothing But the Truth” has a stomping, Motown-like beat, with some great organ from Chris Copping, who had switched from bass for this record.  “Beyond the Pale,” showed that Harum could still conjure up classic song styles with it’s vaudeville feel.  “As Strong as Samson” had a great melody and was the closest thing to a single on the album.  “Monsieur R. Monde” is a cowbell-led rocker, showcasing some fine fretwork from Mick Grabham; he shows that he’s more than capable of filling departed Robin Trower’s shoes.  The whistling “Fresh Fruit” offers some comic relief and is reminiscent of Randy Newman.  The album is augmented by two bonus tracks: the b-side only “Drunk Again,” which has one of the most simplistic guitar riffs the band ever created; plus an alternate version of “As Strong as Samson” which is in a lower key and not as strong as the released version.  Although not as grandiose as the previous Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds and Fruit is still full of great songs and is the last to show the band at it’s peak.

Classic Album – Procol Harum – Procol’s Ninth (1975)
For their ninth album in as many years, Procol Harum decided to shake things up a bit: out was longtime producer Chris Thomas and his “bigger than life” sound.  Choosing producers Leiber and Stoller, the legends behind the Coasters and “Jailhouse Rock,” might seem like an odd choice now, but the team had just come off success with Stealer’s Wheel and “Stuck in the Middle With You” and had proven that they were still relevant.  The first thing you notice about Procol’s Ninth is that it sounds more natural; Gary Brooker sounds like he’s singing in your living room, and BJ Wilson’s drums are meaty without being overblown.  “Pandora’s Box” has a marimba, island feel that breaks down to just Brooker’s voice in the chorus.  The song also features a surprise flute solo in the middle.  “Fools Gold,” one of their best songs, sounds like early Elton John, and the producers manage to coax out a certain grittiness in Brooker’s voice like never before.  “The Unquiet Zone,” with it’s clavinet, is the funkiest thing they’ve ever done.  Also bucking tradition, the band actually does two cover songs: the Leiber and Stoller “I Keep Forgetting,” where the guys give it a classic R&B feel, complete with honking sax; and the Beatles “Eight Days a Week,” which is utterly forgettable – the band just has nothing to add to this familiar song.  The three bonus tracks here are stripped down versions of three of the tracks on the LP and are an interesting look into the recording process.

Classic Album – Procol Harum – Something Magic (1976)
Procol Harum had released ten albums in ten years, but the musical landscape was changing. The public was beginning to embrace disco, and punk was brewing in the underground; both styles of music were light years removed from the grandiose, classically-infused rock that the band had been known for.  Their last couple of albums had been more straight-ahead affairs, which made Something Magic even more of a head-scratcher: instead of at least acknowledging the changes in music, the band turned in their most artsy release in years.  The opening title track has such an epic feel, it sounds like movie music, while the next cut, “Skating on Thin Ice,” is another in a long line of vaudeville-inspired songs, complete with French horn solo.  “Wizard Man” is probably the most accessible song, with it’s church-like organ and clapping.  “The Mark of the Claw” has a very dated synthesizer solo, something not typically found on a Procol Harum record.  But, the album’s centerpiece is “The Worm and the Tree,” which took up the entire side two in the days of the LP.  Depending on who you talk to, it’s either brilliant or downright goofy, with it’s spoken-word pieces and spacey keyboards.  The bonus tracks here show more versatility than the actual released record: “Backgammon” is an instrumental homage to Booker T & the MG’s, while the country-hoedown of “This Old Dog” would’ve added some badly needed cheeriness to the LP.  While certainly not without merit, Something Magic does show a band at it’s end.  It would be 15 years until Gary Brooker and company would reform.  It’s obvious here that they needed the time off. –Tony Peters