Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Procol Harum: Shine On Brightly (A&M, 1968); Procol Harum: Procol Harum (Deram, 1967) Let’s put this into the category of “one is never too old to learn a thing or three.” Thinking about sixties music, as I have been doing more than usual lately, I kept returning to that wonderful, over-played Procol Harum song “Whiter Shade of Pale,” off the band’s self titled first album from 1967. I once owned a copy of that L.P., but I had not heard it in years. I did not remember much about it, other than the one good single. So I figured Procol Harum was pretty much a one-shot band, despite the fact I knew they get much credit for inventing a certain subset of prog rock. Considering the fact these guys are credited with inspiring Electric Light Orchestra and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I figured I was not risking much not bothering to dig up their dusty old sides for a proper listen. Yet, there was a nagging doubt. Since posting my “best of” list for 1968, I have picked up used copies of Shine On Brightly and Procol Harum. Most of the music on the 2nd Procol Harum record is closer to Blond On Blonde or Music From Big Pink than dismal prog rock. Side one is terrific, by any reasonable standards: gritty, catchy, & simply good blues rock. Unfortunately, the 17 minute, “In Held Twas in I” that takes up most of side two is as preposterous as its name, despite some good bits. Overall the Procol Harum second is an album that deserves to be remembered, replayed, and included on stupid “best of ‘68” lists: word to the wise. Their first record is even better. “Whiter Shade of Pale” is not the centerpiece, but an after thought. The famous single with its Bach derived melody was recorded first, with a somewhat different lineup, and its placement at the beginning of the album was purely for commercial purposes. It even has one of those annoying top 40 fade-away endings, that leaves the listener wondering, what happened to the rest of the song. Afterwards, the album proper begins. And it is a stomping good blues bar band record. Many will be familiar with another Procol Harum hit included: “Conquistador,” but there is plenty that will be unfamiliar to most to recommend this record, with little prog rock pretentiousness to get in the way. Highway 61 Revisited seems to be the stepping off point for this band at this early stage in their career. These Brits manage to pull off some very American sounding rock with aplomb. Guitarist Robin Trower, and the double keyboards of Gary Brooker (piano) and Matthew Fisher (organ) ensure the music is always on target. If there is a weakness it is the meandering metaphysics of Keith Reid’s lyrics, but at this early stage Reid’s bag of gimmicks is still fresh enough to work, even 40 years later. Give Procol Harum a listen or re-listen. I did and was surprised.


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