Thursday, June 2, 2011

Procol Harum - Procol Harum

Procol Harum
Procol Harum
Deram   DES 18009

The debut album by Procol Harum.  When I was much younger, I really liked Procol Harum.  I liked that their music was complicated, I thought it was clever that they borrowed from Bach for their hit and I thought that it was cool that Keith Reid's lyrics were almost impossible to make any sense of.  Then I grew up.  I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with having an outside lyricist, Robert Hunter and Brian Wilson's various collaborators come to mind, but I do consider it a troubling sign when an artist has nothing to say.  It is an even more troubling sign when the outside lyricist is more fond of surreal wordplay then saying anything much either.  It is even worse when two of his songs on an album feature references to Neptune (the god not the planet.)  As far as major bands go, I consider Reid's lyrics to be the most pretentious and irritating in the history of rock.  I don't normally judge bands too severely for their lyrics, if the music is good I don't mind stupid or banal lyrics all that much, it is rock and roll, no one is expecting poetry.  If I do get something like poetry, hopefully it is good and still has an emotional impact like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith.  I think the best lyricists reach me on a direct emotional level while also making me think, people like Richard Thompson, Thom Yorke, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Tori Amos.  I respect authenticity and sincerity.  What I dislike are lyrics that are so obscure that I need to study a lyric sheet to even begin to figure them out, like Keith Reid's lyrics.  By definition that is not popular music.  I've never heard a Procol Harum song that had any emotional effect on me aside from perhaps "A Salty Dog."  That said, I still find this album sporadically enjoyable.  "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is practically beyond criticism.  That entrancing Bachian organ line is irresistible to me and Gary Brooker could be singing absolute nonsense (although lines like "if behind is in front then dirt in truth is clean" come pretty close to nonsense) and I would still enjoy this song.  It is certainly one of the odder classic hit singles in the history of rock and kudos to the the Procols for pulling it off.  The only other song on here that I really like a lot is "Conquistador" and this version sounds naked without the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra driving it.  "She Wandered Through the Garden Fence" is a jaunty tune with a nice organ solo but I don't see why the first verse needs to be repeated, it doesn't make any more sense the second time around.  "Something Following Me" is a dreary little tune about death notable only for some nice heavy guitar work.  "Mabel" is the song I most dislike, a shambling music hall type number with morbid lyrics, it reminds me of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" which if you read my entry on "Abbey Road" you'll know is not a compliment.  "Cerdes (outside the gates of)" as you can probably tell from the stupid title, is Keith Reid at his most self-indulgent with its references to unicorns and rhinestoned flugelhorns.  I would hate it were it not for the heaviness of the music with some blistering guitar work from Robin Trower.  "A Christmas Camel" is just as bad, a steady stream of verbal diarrhea rescued by the music.  How exactly does a sheik impersonate a hot dog stand anyway?  The piano hook seems to be lifted from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of A Thin Man" and the rest of the tune seems very influenced by Dylan as well.  I'm fond of J. S. Bach, but when it comes to rocking, I think you are better off copying Dylan.  "Kaleidoscope" is a nice rocker with more befuddled lyrics.  Reid's protagonists are so frequently disoriented that I suspect he must have spent a lot of time drunk or high, either that or he was easily confused. "Salad Days (are here again)" is a compelling majestic tune, I really enjoy the organ work, almost enough to ignore lines like "the sun seeps through the window to see if we're still dead."  Since it has no words "Repent Walpurgis" ought to be one of the best songs on the record, but I find it pretty boring, the most prog-rockish tune on the album.  I have a lot of problems with this record, but on the rare occasions that I play it, I do find it mildly engaging.  The lyrics may be annoying, but they are different at least and the music may be proggy, but it does rock as well.  Recommended for poetry majors with a taste for organ music.

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