Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review of Procol Harum's "Exotic Birds & Fruit"

I posted this one just a few minutes ago on the Sputnick Music website:

Review Summary: The last great Procol Harum album.

Exotic Birds & Fruit was Procol Harum's seventh studio album, and it's my favorite release of theirs, post-1970's Home. It has some shortcomings (which we'll talk about), but it also has three of the band's best tracks from their later days, "Nothing But the Truth", "As Strong as Samson" and "The Idol". This is enough for me to give it the nod even over such excellent entries as Broken Barricades (1971) and Grand Hotel (1973).

The lineup of the band for this LP consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Mick Grabham (guitar), Chris Copping (organ), Alan Cartwright (bass), and Barrie Wilson (drums and percussion), with all of the songs being written by Brooker (music) and Keith Reid (lyrics). Unlike their previous two releases (Live With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Grand Hotel), all of the music (except for some contributions by a couple of guest musicians on "As Strong as Samson" and "Nothing But the Truth") was performed by the band itself -- there was no accompanying orchestra. This was good, in that it provided for a more stripped down sound. It wasn't necessarily Procol's best lineup ever -- Matthew Fisher had been long gone by this time, and Robin Trower had left just before the Live album -- but it was certainly a capable bunch.

For me, the album has two main flaws. The first is inconsistent songwriting. Some of the tracks are pretty forgettable. "The Thin Edge of The Wedge", for example, is slow and creepy, but that's about all it has going for it. "Monsieur R. Monde" features some interesting drumming by Wilson, but not much else of note. And "Butterfly Boys" is kind of raucous, with some bluesy piano, organ and bass, but in the end, it's really not much more than a musical shot at their label (with which they were angry at the time), dressed up in boisterous-but-basic rock clothing.

The second flaw is a little more unexpected. In spite of what the band's web site would have you believe about this album, it's really not Keith Reid's best work. As recently as Grand Hotel, Reid was still churning out the kind of grand and epic ideas in his lyrics that had become Procol's trademark. On this effort, however, even the best songs feature lyrical weaknesses. "As Strong as Samson" wants to be about relevant social issues, but it comes off as kind of mawkish and trite. And although the lyric for the chorus, "The weakest man be strong as Samson/When you're being held to ransom" isn't bad on paper, it was hard enough for Brooker to sing as to be almost incomprehensible on the record (at least for me). As for "The Idol", while it contained a strong central idea (there's a hero who has helped the singer's people out of jams in the past, but now he's just too indifferent to be bothered saving them again), some of the individual lines are embarrassingly bad: "But he could see no point in diving in/He knew that he would neither sink nor swim". Both of these songs make it on the strength of their music, not their lyrics.

So let's talk about the big three numbers. "Nothing But the Truth" leads off the album, and this one is immediately identifiable as a Procol Harum song. It's upbeat and almost heroic sounding, and contains some surprising chord progressions. It unfortunately failed to chart when released as a single, but that doesn't lessen the quality of the song. It certainly starts the album out on a solid (and energetic) note. 

"Strong As Samson", on the other hand, is slower, but just as dramatic. Its main selling point is that its chorus contains a hook strong enough to hang the heaviest of winter coats upon. And while I've criticized it for being a little emotionally manipulative, the music itself lends the track a certain nobility.

Finally, there's "The Idol", which tells an interesting story (albeit through some painfully cliched lyric lines). It's a slow song with some excellent rolling piano, and probably Brooker's strongest vocal performance on the album. And while it starts out quiet, the closing outro features some frenzied guitar work by Grabham layered over Brooker's piano and dual vocal lines (one of which features a calm repetition of the opening line of "Oh the i-i-idol/Oh the i-i-idol", while the other finds him continually blasting out, "Just another idol made of clay!"). It's one of those distinctively bizarre songs that is unique to Procol Harum.

There are some other worthwhile tracks which, while not as good as the big three, do lend the album some texture. "Fresh Fruit" is basically a musical produce commercial, which is silly, but kind of amusing: "Here's another point of view/Fruit is good for doggies too/Rover wags his tail with glee/When he gets his Vitamin C". "New Lamps for Old", meanwhile, is something of a throwback. It's a leisurely, wistful-sounding track that feels like it could have fit on the Home album, somewhere in between "Nothing That I Didn't Know" and "Barnyard Story". It closes the album by paying a slight homage to the more epic Procol of earlier years.

All things considered, then, Procol Harum was still functioning at a pretty high level on this LP. Their work would take a turn for the worst after this. 1975's Procol's Ninth (which was really their eighth studio album, but their ninth when you include the Live LP) has its moments, but isn't nearly as strong as this one. After that, Something Magic (1977) was a big falloff from the band's previous work, and none of the four albums released after the fourteen-year hiatus that followed ever really sounded like classic Procol Harum. Powered largely by those big three tracks, then, Exotic Birds & Fruits is the last great Procol Harum album.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars