Procol Harum

the Pale 

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A Salty Dog  • CD reissue from Esoteric Records

Reviewed by Peter Bourne

“… there's no need to scrape and squeeze
don't beg for silver paper
when I'm trying to sell you cheese”

As promised, here’s a little more on A Salty Dog, my favourite Procol Harum album, now that I’ve had a listen to the deluxe Esoteric 2-CD release. What follows is a brief comparison with the 2009 Salvo release (discussed previously here).

The above quotation (from The Devil Came from Kansas) is not meant unkindly; I am not decrying being re-sold an album many of us already have, as there are differences from the Salvo. I will say off the top that the Esoteric’s set’s main attraction is the six additional bonus tracks. The Salvo’s bonus tracks have been repeated, so those who have that release might well consider bypassing the Esoteric.  But the Esoteric also includes the (mono) single version of the title track, followed by its B-side Long Gone Geek; Westside had released this mono mix previously back in 1997 in their 30th Anniversary Anthology. As far as I know, it’s not that easy to find elsewhere. (Incidentally, the mono mix was the only version of A Salty Dog (song) on that “comprehensive” collection. The stereo (album) version had been annoyingly left off due to “lack of space”, which issue I’ve addressed in Part 1.)

Disc 1 of the new set has the ten original album tracks, in stereo (except Juicy John Pink, which was apparently never mixed to stereo); Disc 2 has all the bonus tracks: the single of ASD, the five previously unreleased songs from three BBC broadcasts, as well as all the Salvo bonus tracks. I found these BBC performances to be uniformly good; well recorded (unlike some in-concert performances), with especially nice surprise licks from Robin Trower at the end of The Milk of Human Kindness. Incidentally, the previously released raw studio track (“Take 1”) of Milk is really just that: only piano, bass and drums, a raw run-through, as evidenced by a few distorted bits of bass guitar and one or two minor fluffs. The rehearsal process is fascinating, at least to me: when I managed our provincial youth orchestra a few years ago, we typically would rehearse all weekend for a concert on the Sunday – the process of building the piece, with extra work on the difficult sections, gradually evolving into something concert-worthy was of more interest to me than the final performance.

All tracks have been remastered (again, of course!); Nick Robbins had done the Salvo release, while the Esoteric was by Ben Wiseman. I don’t hear much difference between the main selections in the two versions; the press release avers that Esoteric used the original master tapes, while no such claim had been made for the Salvo. What is indisputable, in my view, is that this remains a very good-sounding set, as was the Salvo. We are indeed fortunate to have had, over the years (mostly), some very kind treatment of this album, which had originally been very well recorded at Abbey Road (well done, Maf!). The Esoteric represents the eighth or ninth release of the album on CD, not unfitting for an acknowledged masterpiece. I should perhaps mention that these Esoteric releases of The First Four (ie the PH67 (on Deram in the USA) and the Regal Zonophones through Home) have superseded those from Salvo, which are now out of print, while subsequent Procol albums remain available from Salvo. The Salvo editions of The First Four (even the sped-up Shine On Brightly) may still be available here and there (Discogs, for example) ... but often at a price!

I do hear slightly more ‘openness’ (I think!) in the Esoteric, which could be due to differences in the amount of compression applied in the mastering process. Every year, it seems, a little more is learned; we’ve had CDs for over thirty years, and great (although incremental) advances have been made in the seemingly impossible task of converting analogue recordings, originally destined for LPs and tapes, to digital. There is also the (mild tinnitus, specifically) issue of my ears, which have accompanied me well into my seventh decade, so, with respect to sonic evaluation, at least, I would recommend taking my comments with a grain or two of salt.

The new liner notes, once again, are from the knowledgeable Henry Scott-Irvine, with few repetitions from those he wrote for the Salvo release. And … there’s a beautiful, almost full-size poster (nearly 9x9”) of Dickinson’s wonderful Hero-in-the-lifebelt album cover, and the lyrics from all the original album songs are actually reproduced on the other side, in a readable font, no less – no magnifying glass needed!

A critical note on the packaging: frankly, the Salvos were much sturdier; their contents are in a full-width envelope-style pocket at either end of the folded-out heavy card stock album, while the digipak Esoterics use a thinner stock. The disadvantage with the Salvos is that the CD is tightly held in its cardboard pocket, risking damage to the playing surface if it’s not carefully removed. With the Esoterics, removing the booklet and poster should be done very gingerly, lest you tear the rather flimsy corners (which I did – fortunately repairable with invisible tape). The discs themselves in the Esoteric digipak are held in the conventional plastic tray. Also, they did not see fit to provide a (surely not very expensive) plastic slipcase to protect the fold-over digipak, which Universal and Rhino have done for their various similarly designed Deluxe Editions. I presume these are intended to be collectable de luxe editions of classic albums, and represent a considerable investment for some of us. By contrast, such a good job was done with the sturdy cardboard box that houses the three-disc set of Shine On Brightly that the packaging of the other three is shoddy by comparison.

All told: if you missed the Salvo, the Esoteric two-disc set is a very worthy release (a single-disc version is also available, adding only the B-side Long Gone Geek as a bonus track – the two-disc is not much more expensive and is thus recommended over the single disc). But if you already have the Salvo, my recommendation would be to keep it, with its very good master and excellent bonus tracks, and perhaps treat yourself with the Esoteric, with its slightly better master and more bonus tracks. I intend to keep both versions. 

Peter Bourne, July 2016

BtP's page about  this album | More reviews of this record | Part I of this feature

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