Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: Expanded Editions of 3 Procol Harum Albums

Procol Harum through Home constitutes one of the finest four-album runs in Rock—reasonably in the same league as Rubber Soul through “The White Album” (damn you, Yellow Submarine!) and Aftermath through Beggars Banquet (no, that is not a massive typo). 1971’s Broken Barricades broke that spell with indifferent songwriting and some of Keith Reid’s worst lyrics (“Luskus Delph” may set the record for ugliest lyrics matched with prettiest tune), and from there, Procol Harum’s output was pretty hit or miss.

Interestingly, Esoteric Record’s latest wave of expanded Procol reissues focuses only on the hits—at least as far as the seventies are concerned. Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit are by far the band’s best two post-Home albums, the former displaying the group at their appropriately grandest and the latter at their most soulful. While neither hits the heights of those first four albums, songs such as “As Strong As Samson”, “The Idol”, “For Licorice John”, and “Grand Hotel” can stand side by side with “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or “A Salty Dog”. 

Perhaps in an effort to bury a low point among two high ones, 1991’s The Prodigal Stranger is also tossed into the latest campaign. From that first super-gated drum fill, you’ll suss that this is not the Procol Harum you’re looking for. The soulless soul choirs and synthetic production that was already dated in the year we were all smelling Teen Spirit has not deepened with age, and the BIG pop choruses are no better. This one is only for those who are terminally addicted to Gary Brooker’s voice, which remains in gorgeous form.

Since I only received MP3s for review purposes, I cannot give a full assessment of the sound, but after running them through Audacity, I can report that the files are brickwalled, though Exotic Birds and Fruit is not as extreme as Repertoire’s edition from 2000.

There’s a lot of variation in terms of the bonus tracks. Grand Hotel receives five while The Prodigal Stranger gets only three. Exotic Birds and Fruit, however, swells to three discs, making it the most appealing collection in terms of the quality of the original album and its supplements. Aside from the good B-side “Drunk Again” and an off-putting remix of “As Strong as Samson” that lowers the key for no sensible reason, the triple-disc Exotic Birds includes very professional live sets recorded for the BBC’s In Concert series and Texas Radio. As well as pricking up your ears for versions of such peak-period classics as “Homburg”, “Whaling Stories”, Long Gone Geek”, “Cerdes”, and “Mabel”, be sure to listen for the weird yelping of some goofball in the audience at the BBC show.

Grand Hotel’s more austere selection of bonuses includes a version of the title track without its signature sumptuous strings and alternate versions of “Bringing Home the Bacon”, “Toujours L’amour”, “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)”, and “Robert’s Box”, none of which are radically different from the familiar recordings. The rougher sound of the two demos appended to The Prodigal Stranger should provide a respite from the main attraction’s slickness, but weak songwriting, poorly recorded drums, and overuse of synthesizers remain issues. A live version of “Holding On” recorded for German radio in 2003 is probably the best thing on the entire disc by default, though we can finally hear the mileage on Brooker’s pipes and the song still stinks... but let’s not end on a sour note when the other two albums are so terrific, Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit remain essential albums by one of British Rock’s most essential groups.
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