Monday, November 19, 2018

Review of Procol Harum's "Procol's Ninth"

I posted this review this morning on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Procol Harum meets Leiber and Stoller = Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The Universal Horror film franchises of the 1930s followed a predictable arc. They'd release a movie like Frankenstein, and it would be cutting edge. The story would be strong, the characters would be well-defined, and the monster would be terrifying. Then they'd make a sequel or two, and that would be fine. In some cases, such as Bride of Frankenstein, people would consider the follow-up even better than the original. But inevitably, as the novelty wore off, it would be hard to keep the monster frightening. Soon, Frankenstein would be teaming up with other fading horror icons, like Dracula and The Wolf Man. There was fun to be had in these films, but let's face it -- the scares were growing more and more infrequent. And finally, sadly, when there wasn't any other way to make money on the franchise, where would it end up? Playing straight man to Abbott and Costello. 

You see where I'm going here. Procol Harum, in the beginning, was a weird and wonderful band. The music was frequently strange, Gary Brooker's voice was musky and unique, and Keith Reid's lyrics were like Greek and Roman legends. By their middle period, say around the point of Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit, they were still making a lot of excellent music, but some of it was maybe a bit of a self-parody. And especially because Exotic Birds and Fruit didn't sell nearly as well as the band's previous LPs, by the time they starting making Procol's Ninth (which was actually their eighth studio album - it was their ninth counting the live album), they were looking for fresh ideas. Enter Leiber and Stoller.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were one of the most popular songwriting teams of the 1950s. Between them, they wrote or co-wrote over 70 charting singles, including several of Elvis Presley's best-loved songs. By the 1970s, they had reinvented themselves as successful record producers. In a way, it made sense that when Procol started looking for a fresh approach, they'd look to these two songsmiths for help, as there was actually some history between them - The Paramounts, Procol Harum's precursor band, had their one hit single with a cover of the songwriting duo's classic, "Poison Ivy" (originally made famous by The Coasters).

Unfortunately, it wasn't a great fit. While Procol had always had some powerful blues-rock roots, the band's real strength was in their oddness. Leiber and Stoller's instincts were to move them back in a more basic direction. The result wasn't a total disaster, but it wasn't really a success either. 

Far and away, the highlight of Procol's Ninth is the first track, "Pandora's Box". This one is a slow, cool jam with lyrics that encompass Snow White, flying horses, the composer Handel, and pirates crossing the Spanish Main. It was, to date, the band's last charting single. It was also their last truly great song.

Beyond that, you have to take your pleasures where you find them. One of mine is the LP's final song, a cover of The Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" that finds Brooker singing the song's counter-melody every other line or so. Some critics have complained that it throws off the album's general vibe, and feels out of place, but I see it more as a breath of fresh air on a project that just isn't that consistently interesting. I also like "The Final Thrust", which is kind of like a bizarre military march, and "The Piper's Tune", which was the B-side of the "Pandora's Box" single. Of the more basic rock fare, "Fool's Gold" and "Typewriter Torment" (the latter of which is Reid's fairly amusing take on writer's block) seem to me to be the most interesting efforts.

Procol's Ninth is probably best seen in retrospect as an effort by a band that was running out of steam, but still had a few tricks up its sleeve. In comparison to previous Procol albums, it's kind of colorless (as exemplified by the cover art - a basic photo of the band inserted against a plain gray background). But sadly, it's still better than the LPs that were to follow. It's the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein of Procol Harum albums.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars