Procol Harum

the Pale

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Grand Hotel

Bob McBeath / Ken Levine at

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BM Recorded at a time when the band’s star was waning rapidly, Grand Hotel is actually a highly credible effort, with many fine melodic tracks. Gary Brooker’s highly distinctive vocals dominate proceedings as usual, accompanied by a much changed line up from their previous studio album. The most significant change is the departure of guitarist Robin Trower, replaced here by Mick Grabham. The result of these changes was that Procol Harum effectively became Gary Brooker plus any other musicians he appointed. Keith Reid was still on board as lyricist, but it was Brooker who dictated the sound of the band.

The albums kicks off with the majestic title track, which slowly paints a picture of the days when no expense was spared when building luxury hotels. The track is surprisingly progressive in structure, Brooker's orchestration (not to mention 22 mandolins!) enhancing the Ritzy feel of the piece.

As a rule, Brooker focuses on ensuring that the songs here have strong melodies. Tracks such as A Rum tale, a sort of sequel to A Salty Dog, and TV Ceasar are carefully crafted and highly enjoyable pieces. They are relatively straightforward compositions with little real development, but the detailed arrangements give them a warm depth. The latter sees Brooker giving one of his wonderful, full range vocal performances.

Mick Grabham takes the opportunity to show that he too is a highly accomplished guitarist on the upbeat Toujours l'Amour, although the song itself is one of the less memorable Procol Harum songs.

The second side of the album sees the quality dip slightly. A Souvenir of London is the quirky sort of folk tale (of an embarrassing disease) sung by pub singers up and down the country. Bringing Home the Bacon is another example of a basic song considerably enhanced by the arrangement. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is considerably enhanced by some wonderful vocalising by Christianne Legrand (of the Swingle Singers), her delicate voice contrasting perfectly with the gruff tones of Brooker's.

In all, Grand Hotel is a fine album which has not enjoyed the recognition it deserves. It is a perfect example of how good arrangements can transform average compositions into high quality songs.

KL One might argue that Robin Trower hindered more than helped along the Procol cause. He arrived after the first smash hit and left before their second (this may be true in the USA). It's doubtful the hit live album would ever have been realized while he was in the group. The best evidence that his departure took PH up a notch is in this studio follow up to the anaemic Broken Barricades.

Grand Hotel is elegant from its title on down. Perhaps a bit too aristocratic at times, choosing ornate over unaffected more than called for, it contains the strongest songs on a Procol album since their début, and a refreshing stream of Gary Brooker's best career piano work. The lyrics are provocative always, but here they actually make sense. The ditties are superior to the highlights on Barricades. The new guitarist Mick Grabham has unfortunately that same fuzzbucket style that Procol seems to demand, but thankfully he is suppressed more often than his predecessor (not counting David Ball who was only on the live album).

The title track exhibits all the positive and negative facets of the album, but, like most here, tips to the plus side of the ledger, especially thanks to the classical allusions and Russian styled passages. My favourites are Rum Tale, which seems to encapsulate all the best aspects of the group's earlier work, the catchy and insightful TV Caesar, the organ-dominated Bringing Home the Bacon, and the uber-elegant Fires Which Burnt Brightly, with its near Haslam-like noodling by soprano Christianne Legrand. But even the snide commentary of Souvenir of London and Toujours L'Amour work for me in their way, the latter including Grabham's best work along with Bacon.

While the very modest success of Grand Hotel suggested that the smash of Conquistador represented a last gasp rather than a commercial resurgence, this album simply exudes class in the way of a fine wine or opera. Such is a rarity in rock. But like much art of this type, the emotional impact is somewhat wanting, so I must round down to 3 stars (out of five) to make this accommodation.


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