Feedback. Distorted guitar. Guitarist Mick Grabham asking producer Chris Thomas, “is it on, Tommy?” A calm before the first track, “Nothing but the Truth,” comes crashing in. The organ and guitars drive hard under Keith Reid’s lyrics of betrayal and despair, while the piano brightly counters some of the “never ending gloom.” A perfect beginning to draw you in to Exotic Birds & Fruit.
Released in 1974, Exotic Birds & Fruit was Procol Harum’s seventh studio album. After a successful live album (Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra) and the very successful and highly regarded Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds & Fruit had a lot to live up to. The band stripped down to the basics, forging songs they could reproduce on stage without need of a backing orchestra. Making good use of their 24-track, they managed to create a full and sweeping sound.
The original side ‘a’ delivers four of the best songs of the album, if not some of the best of the band’s entire catalog. The second track, “Beyond the Pale,” is a bounding song of fruitless searching pushed forward by Alan Cartwright’s trudging bass line. “As Strong as Samson” and “the Idol” round out the side as the two longest and sonically full tracks. “Samson” rallies for the “weakest man be strong as Samson, when you’re being held to ransom” while “the Idol” tells of the inaction of “just another idol turned to clay.” Both are intricately layered with beautiful instrumentation and vocals to accompany Reid’s lyrics.
The second half of the album has a different flow. Beginning with the creeping “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” and moving into a late-night encounter with “Monsieur R. Monde,” the album takes a strange turn into Reid’s praise of “Fresh Fruit.” “Butterfly Boys” is a rocking song that takes a shot at the execs of their label, Chrysalis Records. Grabham gets a chance to really shine in this track with some great fills and an excellent solo. “New Lamps for Old” beautifully brings the original album to a close, reminiscent of their biggest hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
While the overall sound is definitely Procol Harum, you can hear the influences of the likes of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Phil Spector among others. Producer Chris Thomas sat in on sessions for the Beatles’ white album and mixed Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while producing Grand Hotel, both experiences undoubtedly coloring Thomas’ producing of this album. “The Idol” in particular could easily be mistaken for an outtake from Dark Side of the Moon. This was the fifth and last Procol Harum album produced by Thomas, whose credits would later include Badfinger’s Wish You Were Here, The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as well as albums for the Pretenders, INXS, Elton John and Paul McCartney.
Also included in this edition is “Drunk Again,” the original b-side of “Nothing but the Truth,” and an alternate mix of “As Strong as Sampson” in D-flat. “Drunk Again” is another great rock gem along the lines of “Butterfly Boys.” Everyone gets to cut loose on this track it is a welcome addition to the album. The alternate cut of “As Strong as Sampson” is interesting, but the original is better. Absent is the band’s take on Strauss’ “Blue Danube” that was included in the 2004 reissue of the album.
An overall strong album from the band, and well worth it for the first four tracks alone (particularly “Beyond the Pale.” Exotic Birds & Fruit is now available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and UnionSquareMusic.co.uk, and the band is playing a handful of shows in November in support. Full show listings available at ProcolHarum.com.