Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Salty Dog

Procol Harum/1969

Admit it. You could probably live without ever hearing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” again. It’s not like you haven’t already heard it a zillion times, played to death on “Oldies” radio stations. Which is really a shame, because it truly is a great song. Secondly, it painted an awesome band – Procol Harum – into the dreaded “one-hit wonder” category. And that is totally inaccurate. They released ten strong albums between 1967 and 1977. With their second album, Shine On Brightly (see my previous review) Procol avoided the “sophomore jinx” altogether with a masterpiece that was leaps and bounds ahead of their debut in terms of songwriting, arranging and production. A tough act to follow, indeed, but A Salty Dog was surely up to the task. You knew you were living through a progressive era when, after dropping needle to vinyl on a rock album, the first thing you heard was an orchestral string section gently playing somber, mournful staccato notes, as pianist/vocalist Gary Brooker sings:

“All hands on deck
We’ve run afloat
I heard the captain cry
Explore the ship; replace the cook
Let no one leave alive”

A clarion call to the crew or to the listener? Either way, this nautically themed title track (a theme that carries through the entire album as well as the cover) with its lush orchestration was about as far from standard rock ‘n roll as you could get. Nothing new, really, for Procol – a band that mixed heavy blues with heavy Bach about as easily as most bands mixed their rock with roll. Not that this band couldn’t rock. How could they not, with Robin Trower on guitar? His nasty licks go full tilt in heavier tracks like “The Devil Came From Kansas” or the bluesy grunge of “Juicy John Pink.” But in more esoteric numbers like the epic, orchestrated “Wreck of the Hesperus” his guitar is used in a much more decisive way, as if just another instrument in the orchestra (he would tire of this approach and ultimately leave the band for a successful solo career where he could play without such constraints.) The sad, mournful vibe that permeates the album is perfectly reflected in organist Mathew Fisher’s almost hymn-like “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the album’s closing track. Its stately organ chords create a thick, soft cushion for Fisher’s haunting vocals:

“I sat me down to write a simple story
Which maybe in the end became a song
The words have all been writ by one before me
We're taking turns in trying to pass them on
Oh, we're taking turns in trying to pass them on”

With A Salty Dog, Procol had indeed passed their “simple story” on with a timeless, unforgettable album…one that many would argue would be their finest hour. Unfortunately, Fisher left the band after the tour for this album – taking with him a part of Procol’s soul that would be difficult (if not impossible) to replace.

Essential tracks: “A Salty Dog” “The Devil Came From Kansas” “Wreck of the Hesperus” “Pilgrim’s Promise”

1 comment:

  1. Always been my favorite record by them. First owned on 8 track, then LP and lastly CD reissue with bonus tracks from the UK. You're right about Matthew Fisher being irreplacable, integral part of their overall sound. One of the finest LPs ever produced.

    David Richard