A Salty Dog is a confusing album. At its best it represents the group's greatest success to date with the brand of rock for which the group is known, at its worst it is both surprisingly mediocre and trivial. The most tenable explanation for this unevenness of quality is that Procol Harum, now produced from within by organist Matthew Fisher and boasting three songwriters where it once boasted one (or one and a half if you wish to consider Fisher's infrequent early contributions), is growing, but not without suffering growing pains.
Three cuts fit comfortably into the familiar Procol mold. "All This And More" is quite reminiscent of "Homburg," although not nearly so good. "The Milk Of Human Kindness" features a sort of torchy (i.e. late Thirties musical-style) guitar line and some nice Procol Harum country funk on the choruses. The best of the three, however, is "The Devil Came From Kansas," which nearly overflows with latent energy. B. J. Wilson here alternates march and bolero rhythms behind gigantic piano chords and a powerful vocal by Brooker.
Each of Fisher's entries is lovelier than the one before. "Boredom" 's gentle calypso feeling is created by some very pretty marimba work (by Fisher) and various exotic percussion instruments. On "The Wreck of the Hesperus" he sounds a little like Paul McCartney. The song's essential prettiness will no doubt be lost on those who, because of its Wagnerian-sounding arrangement and theme (lots of talk of Valkyries here), will dismiss it as pretentious. "Pilgrim's Progress" is even prettier, with a melody gorgeous enough to have been written by a Bee Gee (not meant sarcastically). Keith Reid's introspective, confessional lyrics are backed by a "Whiter Shade of Pale"-sounding organ.
And now to the really magnificent parts. "Too Much Between Us" is the kind of song you can float away onits background and vocal of marimba and acoustic guitar, in a perfectly understated waitz-time are beautifully ethereal. This is probably the best non-mold song Procol have yet produced.
"A Salty Dog" opens with eerie strings and seagulls (and threatens for a moment to become just a bit too luxurious). On the part where the words are: "How many moons and many Junes have passed since we made love?" (my favorite line on the album) the drums come in hard, the strings swell mightily, and Brooker's voice soars excitingly (leaving you so knocked out that you won't even notice the rather gauche strings that start the cycle up again until your third or fourth listening).
This could have been an astonishing album. But where Procol Harum is staying where they've been (especially Trower's recorded guitar work and Wilson's drumming) they're becoming a bit too predictable, and they're a little awkward in their pursuit of the new directions suggested by Trower and Fisher. Also, Reid's lyrics, which might have served as the glue that unified the diverse sides of the album, are becoming too diffuse, too self-conscious to function in that way. And one can't help but wish that Brooker and Fisher will resist their urge to fool around with string arrangements until such time as they can make them something more than superfluous.
Get it anyway. Its several incredible moments will make it well worth your while. (RS 34)
(Posted: May 31, 1969)
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