Shine On Brightly (Procol Harum) A&M SP 4151: Jim Miller in Rolling Stone, 7 December 1968
Procol Harum is a hard group to review, if only because they have chosen stylistically to place themselves in competition with middle-late (Blonde on Blonde) Dylan and the Band (Music From Big Pink); thus Keith Reid can write uncannily like a certain period Dylan (as Rambling On on Shine On Brightly) and BJ Wilson often sounds like Levon Helm taught him how to play drums.
It has been remarked how much the Band album showed the influence of the first Procol Harum album; it might also be remarked how much the second Procol Harum album shows the influence of the Band album. Perhaps this juxtaposition is unfair – it must be admitted Procol Harum suffers in these comparisons – but Gary Brooker, in spite of his unique style, just cannot match Richard Manuel's vocals, and Robin Trower can't begin to touch Robbie Robertson's guitar playing.
In spite of these limitations Procol Harum is nevertheless quite capable of powerful music when not being wantonly eclectic (note the absurd quote from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez in the middle section of Skip Softly). The dilemma of the group is illustrated quite bluntly by In Held 'Twas In I, a seventeen-minute sonic blitz that ranges from an anecdote concerning a koan the Dalai Lama presumably once delivered, to an electric mass of sorts.
Sandwiched in the midst of all this often patent nonsense is a very moving song decidedly (and effectively) schizoid, about the 'autumn of my madness'. Shine On Brightly is also a beautifully constructed little song, an effective wedding of lyrics and music.
Quite Rightly So and Rambling On are nice tracks, while Magdalene is certainly pleasant enough. Having said this however, it must be noted that Shine On Brightly is not the album one might have hoped for. The Procol Harum's first release was generally more satisfying, especially since this new album displays little in the way of startling growth – the group has apparently chosen to refine their old approach and the musical result, while usually listenable, is not consistently interesting.
One question the album does raise is whether the Procol Harum have the imaginative and musical potential to creatively evolve, and on this score Shine On Brightly must remain an ambiguous statement.
Thanks to Joan May for submitting this to BtP. Joan comments (December 1998):
Well at least he didn't say that Matthew Fisher sounded as if Garth Hudson taught him to play Hammond! <G> ... but it would have been nice if he had mentioned Matthew's name – perhaps as the creator and brilliant pianist of the 'electric mass,' or the singer and music composer of that moving Autumn song he liked so much. Of course those oversights can be blamed on the incomplete liner-note credits, which still sadly haven't been improved on any of the recent reissues.
Robbie Robertson disputes the notion that The Band's first album – or any of their albums – was influenced by Procol Harum, and I certainly agree there! (see here and here for more on this subject). The influence in the other direction may be a little bit more valid – Gary and (perhaps) Keith have mentioned The Band in reference to Mabel and The Milk of Human Kindness, but not any songs from SOB that I'm aware of. (See here for comments from Gary and Keith.)
BJ has expressed his admiration for Levon Helm, and BJ's drumming isn't prominent enough in the mix on this album for the listener to realize what a unique drummer he was – light-years ahead of Levon and all other drummers. (see here for BJ & Levon)
But to me, The Band isn't a relevant influence on Procol, because I hear so much Classical influence dominating Procol's music – beginning with the Bach / Baroque sound that Matthew brought to the first albums. What I hear and love most about Procol is the seamless fusion of the Classical with Rock and Blues. I don't hear anything like that in The Band, whose dominant sound to me is more countryish or old-timey rural / American – an entirely different feel from Procol.
Of course I don't agree with Miller's comparisons of Gary Brooker vs. Richard Manuel and especially Robin Trower vs. Robbie Robertson! Where on any of The Band's albums does Robbie R play anywhere near as well as Robin Trower? NOWHERE, that's where!
But I also disagree with Henry Scott-Irvine when he comments in the SOB...plus! liner notes that Robin's guitar playing is best represented on this album. I think there's no contest and that Procol's First boasts Robin's best playing by far, as well as some of the greatest playing any guitarist has ever produced. On much of the SOB album, Robin's contributions are too brief, and he often squanders the small spaces allotted him by repeating the same note over and over again (perhaps out of frustration over the smallness of those spaces?). His Grand Finale solo just isn't as melodically satisfying as his magnificent solos on Repent and Cerdes, nor does it compare with Mick Grabham's incredible GF solo at Redhill. But the redeeming guitar tune on SOB for me is the exciting blues Wish Me Well – some of Robin's Best blues playing Ever!
I'm so sorry Westside Records opted not to include that alternate version – with the reportedly longer fadeout of Robin's delicious blues licks – on SOB ... plus!. Their logic really escapes me: just because they discovered that it wasn't a new song, what made them decide not to release it as an alternate, considering all the other alternate tracks they have released – many of which differ very little from the originals or suffer in comparison? (exceptions: the lovely Homburg Variations, and the instrumental version of AWSoP, ie Matthew's uncredited composition, the song's immortal organ melody). I hope Westside will reconsider and include the longer version of Wish Me Well on a future reissue of a Procol album. [they did, of course: here]
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