Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol's Ninth

Contemporary album review

Bud Scoppa in Rolling Stone, 9 October 1975

Procol Harum, down to delusions of grandeur after losing key members (like Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher) and running desperately low on ideas has been rescued in the nick of time by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who have just taken over as producers. Despite the symphonic allusion in the title, Procol's Ninth is the hardest, grittiest recording the band has made in years.

Wonderfully deft production (Leiber and Stoller seem to know Procol better than it knows itself) and exceptional performances by BJ Wilson (one of rock's best drummers), singer Gary Brooker and a newer member, guitarist Mick Grabham, make up for the often deficient material. Lyricist Keith Reid has become Procol's weakest link: Over eight years and nine albums, Reid has refused to budge from an approach that ignores meaning and feeling in favor of fanciful quasi-arcane stylizations.

Reid's resolute redundancy has put a great deal of pressure on Brooker, who sings the words and writes music to go with them. On Procol's Ninth, he rises to the challenge: rather than taking the lyrics seriously, as he has on recent albums, Brooker sings in an intense but goofy style (he reminds me of Rick Danko and Richard Thompson) that playfully juggles gentility and funkiness. And rather than fashioning fluid melodies, he strings together often disparate passages into ungainly but infectious progressions in which every other riff is a hook.

Brooker has no qualms about cramming together elements of Chopin, Dylan, Gaelic folk music and Dixieland. Although few of these stylistic potpourris make much sense as songs, they showcase the band quite nicely and give Procol the spirit and looseness its work has long lacked. The precise production enhances this sense of gregariousness: Leiber and Stoller keep things spare but bright with imaginative detail (like the bass marimba that pulls the listener into Pandora's Box), and their only obvious error is their use of overdubbed horns for coloration in places where Chris Copping's organ would have been more contextually apt.

The two producers have also generously provided Procol with the best song on the album with I Keep Forgetting, which they wrote for Chuck Jackson in the early Sixties. The band – playing tough but cheerful rock & roll – is equal to the material. The track works so well (unlike the other nonoriginal, a listless rendition of Eight Days a Week) that Procol might consider devoting an entire album to the works of Leiber-Stoller while sending Keith Reid on an extended leave of absence. At any rate, Procol Harum is making music that is at the same time more forceful and more fun than at any time since the Whiter Shade of Pale era (when I thought at first I was listening to Percy Sledge).

How nice: Procol Harum still sweats.

Thanks, Joan

More reviews of this album

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