Richard Williams in Melody Maker: Procol Harum: Grand Hotel (Chrysalis)
What with the current 'return to elegance', it was inevitable that someone pick up on the old Grand Hotel idea.
After all, there's such a lot to build on: Vicki Baum's novel, Garbo's movie … so much atmosphere ready made. So congrats to Messrs Brooker and Reid for being the first.
Grand Hotel is, in fact, only one of nine tracks on this album; I'd have thought that there was enough material in the subject for much more (maybe even an entire concept album perhaps based on the multiple themes of the book and movie). Nevertheless, this song lives up to its subject, expanding on the mood Van Dyke Parks created with 'hung velvet overtaken me … dim chandelier awaken me' in Surf's Up. Reid's lyrics speak of fine wine, rare meats, silver plate, serenade and sarabande, Dover sole and oeufs Mornay, profiteroles and Preach [sic] Flambé, and around all this rich imagery Brooker creates sad minuets and stately slow foxtrots, based on the rock rhythm section but amplified by a superb arrangement for Orchestra and Chorus. He really has learned how to use this medium, making a joke of most avant-rockers who try to borrow from classical music, and Grand Hotel stands with Whaling Stories and A Salty Dog as the group's finest achievements. (They are, too, almost unique in that the more ambitious they get, the more they succeed).
But that's not the end of the story. The addition of Mick Grabham's guitar seems to have added guts and edge to the band, with the result that their faster numbers now sound less like fillers. Three tracks, here, sound particularly good: Toujours l' Amour, built around Chris Copping's stabbing, full-bodied organ, with tantalising chord changes; Bringing Home the Bacon, on which Grabham plays what is surely a classic guitar solo, finely balanced against the band's wall of thunder; and Robert's Box, which begins unremarkably but delightfully features an old-fashioned goofy bass voice in its memorable chorus.
There's lots of contrast elsewhere, too: A Souvenir of London comes on like Lennon jamming with Mungo Jerry, and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) uses the marvellous soprano voice of the Swingle Singers' Christianne LeGrande behind Brooker's lead. A work [sic], too, about the usually-unsung musicians : BJ Wilson synthesises funk and decoration into a heady mixture (helped no end by Chris Thomas's superlative production), while Alan Cartwright lines his bass guitar up alongside BJ's bass drum until the two are almost inseparable, providing a gargantuan bedrock on which the keyboards and guitar can build.
But to my mind Grand Hotel is primarily Brooker's achievement; time and again, he throws up musical ideas which are fresh and very accessible, suggesting that despite their six years together , Procol Harum's finest hour may yet be ahead of them . Book your reservation.
More reviews of this particular album
Order this CD from Amazon USA
Or order the 3 CD box from Amazon UK (Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds and Fruit and Procol's Ninth)