This review of A Salty Dog is reproduced, by kind permission of the author, from his own page; remember his sparkling review of Procol Harum ('The Black album')? Readers are referred also to Galpy's essay about Classic Rock.
A Salty Dog (1969)
1) A Salty Dog; 2) The Milk of Human Kindness; 3) Too Much Between Us; 4) The Devil Came from Kansas; 5) Boredom; 6) Juicy John Pink; 7) Wreck of the Hesperus; 8) All This and More; 9) Crucifiction Land [sic]; 10) Pilgrim's Progress.
Best song: The Milk of Human Kindness
The mediocrity of Procol Harum regrettably continues. Once again, when I put this on I expected it to at least approach the quality of the first album, but as I kept hearing more and more mellow songs without a definite melodic or powerful edge, I became very disappointed. At the same time, this album is at least marginally better than its immediate predecessor, as there are no 17-minute odes to Buddha or whatever, and the songwriting has diversified and at least somewhat veered away from simply ripping off the 1967 classic. I already classified most of the tracks here as "mellow", but for the most part that's all they really have in common, as stylistically Procol Harum end up sounding more like a bunch of different contemporary bands than like their previous selves. Heck, sometimes Gary Brooker's voice is modified to a virtually unrecognizable extent on songs like Crucifiction Land [sic], where he sings like a rugged old bluesman [it's Robin Trower], Pilgrim's Progress, where he makes like the Beach Boys, and Wreck of the Hesperus, where I could've sworn it's John Lennon's twin brother singing [it's Matthew Fisher]. You bet it's weird, but I guess Brooker had even more singing talent than I thought. In addition, the styles (if not quite the quality) of bands like the Kinks, Beatles, Stones, Who, and Moody Blues all appear on this album, or perhaps it's occasionally the other way around - Procol Harum were very influential, you know.
To show you more of what I mean by "diverse mediocrity", let's have some examples. It seems to me that Procol somewhat preceded the Stones' Exile style by three years on The Devil Came from Kansas. Translation: it's a fairly melodic decadent rocker with a muddy lazy chorus that doesn't really go anywhere. In turn, Too Much Between Us and Boredom sound like potential songwriting products of Pete Townshend and Ray Davies on a bad day, respectively, the former being a very pretty acoustic love ballad with a corny chorus, and the latter - a grand epitome of its title garnished with a little too much xylophone, massive tambourines and horse bells. In the meanwhile, the stripped-down blues Juicy John Pink sounds like something off Cream's debut with its distorted high-pitched guitar and harmonica.
A few other stylistic imitations work pretty well, though. On Wreck of the Hesperus (the Lennonesque one), the vocal melody is so incredible that it should've been the best song on the album, if not for an unfortunate case of "plastic bag syndrome". The melody struggles to breathe underneath a routine piano that dominates the mix for no apparent reason (Tony Banks, anyone?), and has to battle a generic Moody Blues-style orchestra that kicks in occasionally as if it's a 50s cinematic melodrama, as well as drums that are muted to such an extent that I'm not even sure someone's drumming. Eventually, the songwriting wins an epic tug-of-war against the horrible backing instrumentation and arrangements, but this just goes to show how difficult it is to find a truly perfect song on this whole album. Miraculously, there is one, called The Milk of Human Kindness, and who [sic] does it imitate but the Beatles? A slightly more guitar-heavy Beatles, but that's the only difference, as the song is an instant bouncy classic that somehow digs up an unexpected upwards hook when all seems lost at the end of the chorus.
Of course, we get to hear a bit of the "old" Procol Harum as well, both good and bad. The sweeping opening title track about sea travel sort of sets the tone for whatever hint of cohesiveness this album has (Too Much Between Us, Wreck, and the closing Pilgrim's Progress are also "sea" songs). It's a good one, too, despite another prominent appearance by the semi-cheesy orchestra. The band really succeeds in imitating the trials and tribulations of the sea here by creating an immense contrast between the tranquil verses and the tempestuous chorus, made such mostly by a remarkably powerful Brooker vocal performance. Later on, All This and More is a traditional ripoff of something from the band's début album with more generic hooks, and the album ends with the merely pleasant Pilgrim's Progress, which, if not for the aforementioned suddenly clean Beach Boys ballad-style singing, would have sounded like vintage Procol with its signature organ. By the way, this was the organist's last recorded effort with the band, from which he seceded the following year. Maybe this drastic change in instrumentation would shake this band out of the doldrums? Let's listen on.