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Procol Harum - Exotic Birds And Fruit CD (album) cover


Procol Harum


Crossover Prog

3.42 | 133 ratings

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4 stars "Ain't no use in preacher's preaching when they don't know what their teaching. The weakest man, be strong as Sampson, when you're being held to ransom."

Strong as Sampson should have been the Procol Harum song that knocked A Whiter Shade of Pale out of the British public's mind. At least for a little while. It was a song unusual for Procol Harum as it was filled with catchy hooks, great emotional singing from pianist Gary Brooker, and was extremely topical to Great Britain in 1974. Late 1973 was the year of the dreaded "three day work week" in Great Britain as the coal miner's union "held the country to ransom" according to the then conservatives.

And what did Chrysalis Records do? They released the song almost two years after the fact. A song that would have trumped the Strawbs' similar bash on unions, Part Of The Union, in spades.

But one song does not make an album, so let's start at the beginning. Dispensing with an orchestra and choir for accompaniment as they did on 1973's Grand Hotel, Procol Harum kept the music for this album in house and got out some of their big guns out in doing so. Exotic Birds and Fruit from 1974 was one of Procol Harum's most solid and fully formed later day albums (the eighth) and lacked the stale pretention and lack of emotion found in their previous album Grand Hotel.

One of the first songs recorded for the album, track number 8 on the original LP, was a swipe at the Chrysalis Record label management entitled Butterfly Boys, which did not go over well with the Chrysalis brass who wanted the lyrics and song title changed to Government Boys, as the Chrysalis label utilized a butterfly on their record logo. The band refused to budge and the lyrics remained. Did Procol Harum shoot themselves in the foot by doing this? Probably, but that led to a looser and more relaxed album where anything was fair game. Brooker and company found it easy to rock out on Exotic Birds and Fruit on the bombastic and catchy album opener titled Nothing But the Truth. This song rocks even with a string accompaniment. The only song on the album to have one.

Following directly is an eastern European themed song tilted Beyond the Pale. Part homage to those "strange instruments that look like the inside of a piano", according to Brooker, and part tongue in cheek, the boys have more fun trying to make pitch shifted piano, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and even a banjo sound like a cross between bouzoukis and zithers, and they succeeded wonderfully, while lyricist Keith Reid congered up visions of a Europe seldom seen (or imagined?) by Western man.

Another hook laden song with a dramatic chorus, Beyond the Pale is the perfect opener before the magnificent Strong As Sampson's heavy bass and drums roll in. Drawn in by a mesmerizing organ and piano melody in the verse and Brooker's emotive and hook laden chorus, the song is capped off with a blistering organ solo by Chris Copping. Strong As Sampson couldn't have been performed better. The band were truly angry that so much of their recording time was eaten up by energy strikes, that they mean every word they sing and their anger and frustration is released in every note played on the song. Going beyond the immediate topic of strikes, Reid lays down his most damning lyrics ever, aimed at crooked psychiatrists and lawyers, misinforming clergy and the never ending Middle East conflict between Arabs and Jews.

The theme of greed continues on the song The Idol, and truthfully, we've all heard this before, but again, Brooker, Reid and company sound sincere in their disgust about obsessive gain. Not as powerful as Strong as Sampson, the song pales in comparison, but is fascinating for it's complex chord structures and multi dubbed piano parts.

Following directly is the the most outre song on Exotic Birds and Fruit. The Thin Edge of the Wedge is built up on numerous overdubbed arpeggios and exotic figures from Mick Grabham's electric guitar with eerie piano and percussion highlights. It's one of Procol Harum's darker songs and Brooker is totally convincing relaying some of Reid's most malevolent lyrics. It's difficult to imagine Neil Young making the recent guitar layered album tilted Le Noise without a nod to this eerie psychedelic outing.

Monsieur R. Monde is a raging rocker that shows off drummer BJ Wilson and bassist Allan Cartwright to great effect as well as showing the muscle of Grabham when he really wants to rock out. Unlike his predecessors, which includes the great Robin Trower, Grabham seems to serve the songs instead of competing with them and this particular song is the better for it. Fresh Fruit is a fun bouncy number penned almost entirely by Brooker and is filled with witty double entendres. The album closer New Lamps for Old is the perfect closing track for this album as it's slow organ and piano bring to mind early Porcol Harum and shows that the band remember where came from musically.

The original vinyl release of Exotic Birds and Fruit was flawed and hard to listen to due to poor mastering, but any new remaster from Castle Records to Salvo have proper EQing that lets producer Chris Thomas' dense but dynamic sound mix shine.

I'm not sure if Exotic Birds and Fruit is an essential prog album because I'm not really sure if it is really a prog album to begin with. But it's a hell of a rock album that anyone from a Styx fan to a Yes fan, I'm sure, would appreciate. 4 stars.

SteveG | 4/5 |


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