A Whiter Shade Of Pale (1967) [this was the title of the Procol Harum album in the USA]
In mid-1967 the bombastic, deadly serious title track suddenly became a major international hit, going to #1 in the UK despite the group's lineup on that record already having disbanded. Brooker reformed the band and quickly recorded an LP that spotlights his collaborations with Dylan-influenced lyricist Reid – Fisher gets in just one instrumental (Repent Walpurgis). They mine much the same formula on every track, and it works: hook-heavy tunes, soulful Brooker vocals, interesting interplay between his piano and Fisher's swirling electric organ, and moderate amounts of soloing by the teenaged [sic] Trower, whose mastery of then-current guitar effects is already impressive. They don't vary the tone much, apart from a plodding Dylan-style blues (Something Following Me) and two music hall-influenced sendups (Mabel; Good Captain Clack); and the catchier tunes either have a dated-sounding 60s dance beat (Conquistador; Kaleidoscope), push the Dylan plagiarism to an extreme (Salad Days (Are Here Again)), or are just plain repetitive (A Christmas Camel). But Fisher's musical sense is solid (She Wandered Through The Garden Fence), and on stately, acidified numbers like Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) they've clearly hit upon a unique, intriguing sound. Uneven, but extremely promising. The same year their single Homburg was a moderate hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Like the next three discs, this one has recently been reissued with a bunch of bonus tracks; however, I've never seen those versions in stores.
Shine On Brightly (1968)
On the heels of two major hits, this time the band was given much more time in the studio. So in typical late 60s fashion, they pad out all of side 2 with a convoluted multi-part experimental suite (In Held 'Twas I [sic]). It mixes up a mock-Buddhist dirge, Revolution #9-style sound effects, a spooky poetry reading, a melodramatic riff that appears both as a raga and as a monster movie theme, and a bombastic fade [?] with a vocal choir. Amazingly, they pull it off: the instrumental parts are bearable, and there are several good, full-blown vocal segments like their goofy Teatime at the Circus comedy number; another stately Brooker epic with a powerful harpsichord line; and a beautiful ascending quasi-classical melody that apparently spotlights Fisher on vocals. The half-dozen tunes on the first side are solid, with several in the same solemn, Dylan-meets-the-Yardbirds style of the first album (title track; Rambling On; the Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), complete with an a capella "horn" solo). The highlights of that batch are the uplifting, Band-likeQuite Rightly So and dynamic, hard-hitting title track. Trower is much more aggressive throughout, but he's still standing in the shadow of Eric Clapton (the lurching, gospel-flavored blues Wish Me Well). And they flop with a labored psychedelic music hall number in the style of the 1966-era Stones or Beatles (Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)). Fascinating, but scattershot. Like their first album, this was produced by Denny Cordell, who's assisted here by Tony Visconti.
A Salty Dog (1969)
My mom loves this record, and I can see why; it's crafted, clever, and rarely loud enough to offend. The band by now was being produced by Fisher, and drew most of its inspiration from the Beatles and the mellow British folk of Traffic (Boredom). So they're close in sound to Jethro Tull, but a heck of a lot more interesting. Brooker's bluesy baritone is a less idiosyncratic and more expressive than Ian Anderson's; there's hardly a hint of Anderson's snottiness in Reid's poetic lyrics; Brooker and Fisher add a playful variety of instruments and some majestic orchestral arrangements (title track; Wreck Of The Hesperus); and Trower has finally matured into a major-league talent. Even his occasionally brash, Jimmy Page-like guitar parts don't overwhelm the band, as on the march The Devil Came From Kansas - although his down-tempo Chicago blues Juicy John Pink doesn't really fit in. If anything, the band end up presaging Elton John's early orchestrated rock formula here, avoiding any of prog rock's later excesses despite the orchestration. It's too bad that the record did little to win them a new audience. But in any case, thanks mom.
With Fisher gone, the band uses much less organ and ends up with a dark, spartan, almost nightmarish sound that's even more reminiscent of Traffic (minus any flute or sax). Trower's galloping, heavily Cream-influenced, one-riff blues workout Whiskey Train is the most memorable track, and his other contribution is just superb (the brutal, cathartic About To Die, with a soaring, notably Band-like chorus). But there are plenty of other spotlights [sic]. Brooker's stately, sorrowful haunted house ballads are darker than ever but work well (The Dead Man's Dream; the tense, driving Piggy Pig Pig, with Trower again pulling a Jimmy Page). And he whips out a joyful, propulsive tune - one of the band's more memorable - that completely belies its sadistic lyrics (Still There'll Be More). He's also lighthearted on the somewhat Carole King-like anthem Your Own Choice, another key track and one that would have fit right in on Sesame Street. There are some relatively weak cuts here that work in their usual style, but they're still intriguing (Nothing That I Didn't Know, which even features accordion; Barnyard Story, very much like any contemporary Steve Winwood piano ballad; Whaling Stories, which just gets weirder and more threatening until it ends with a rather silly and bombastic symphonic coda). So you really should go out of your way to find this record, at least if you agree with me that the late 60s and very early 70s marked the peak of rock's creativity and relevance. Their first album with Copping instead of Fisher and Knights; produced by Chris Thomas, who stuck with them all the way through Exotic Birds And Fruit.
More reviews of other Procol Harum albums