After their debut black mass and the more colorfully proggy Shine on Brightly, Procol Harum once again shifted sails for an album that was both more stripped down and more elaborately adorned than their first two. With its simple folk and blues songs and more ambitious orchestral mini-epics, A Salty Dog was Procol operating at full maturity. The democratization of vocal duties further set it apart from the two records before it. Needless to say, Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower couldn’t beat Gary Brooker’s magnificent voice, but they both add variety to the proceedings (Fisher’s reedy though earnest voice is particularly pleasing), and Brooker gets what may be his most stunning vocal spotlights with the title track and “All This and More”. A Salty Dog is a masterful album, both Procol’s finest, and as far as I’m concerned, the finest by any artist in a year that included Led Zeppelin, Let It Bleed, Abbey Road, Tommy, and The Band.
Then Fisher departed and the band changed more significantly than ever. Without Fisher’s signature organ parts, Trower stepped in to fill the gap, and the band made its most guitar-heavy record with Home. Keith Reid’s death-obsessed lyrics are pretty heavy too, often crossing into outright horror. Brooker didn’t allow the lyrics’ thematic consistency to beat his music into a sort of Gothic monotony. He danced all over the place with Hammer horror doom and gloom (“The Dead Man’s Dream”), rollicking pop (making the ridiculously violent “Still There’ll Be More” all the more ridiculous), folk balladry (“Nothing That I Didn’t Know”), pub sing-along (“Your Own Choice”), and outright prog (“Whaling Stories”). With Trower, he co-wrote “Whiskey Train”, the hardest rocking thing in Procol’s valise. Without Fisher’s voice and organ flourishes to add extra color, or the sweeping orchestrations of A Salty Dog, Home isn’t as grand as the previous record, but it is another excellent record and the capper for the band’s most satisfying period.
Since Esoteric Records has not announced remasters of Broken Barricades or Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as of this writing, A Salty Dog and Home may also be the cappers of the label’s current remaster series. That would be a shame, since all of these discs re-mastered from the original tapes sound fabulous. As I wrote in my review of the first two remasters, Salvo was the last label to reissue Procol’s catalogue, and its versions of the first two albums both contained tracks running at the wrong speeds. That label’s issues of Salty Dog and Home suffered no such issues, but Esoteric’s still sound markedly superior to Salvo’s relatively thin and bright masters. This is never clearer than on Esoteric’s remaster of A Salty Dog, which really allows its roomy acoustics and eclectic instrumentation to live and breathe. The improvement in the resonance and depth of B.J. Wilson’s drums is striking on both discs.
Once again, I received single-disc versions of Esoteric’s reissues to review, each containing just one bonus track. There’s the mighty B-side “Long Gone Geek” on A Salty Dog and the radio edit of “Whiskey Train” on Home. Both CDs are available in two-disc editions with about a dozen bonus tracks each: mostly BBC sessions and live cuts on Salty Dog and backing tracks and alternate takes on Home. Obviously, I can’t comment on those, but I’m still confident that Esoteric’s Procol Harum reissues will rank among this year’s best reissues for sound alone.
Get Esoteric’s new re-masters of Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog and Home on Amazon.com here: