I bought this collection of PBC's Columbia material last year, almost on a whim, since I had never been a big fan during their late 1960s existence. However, I did see the group live in Chicago, summer of 1968 (more on that later). I was familiar with the LPs, but never owned either, preferring the first one (Spreading) over the second (Great), which I found rather cold.
Well, the music obviously has not changed, but my perceptions of it has. Spreading is a decent first effort, but it has a rather piece-meal quality to it. While not a singles band, the album plays as if PBC were that very thing. Thus, the tracks work better individually than as a well-integrated album of 11 songs. The strongest tracks are "Dark on You Now" (which, sometimes, as "Swallow the Sun," was covered by a number of West Coast bands), "You Should Know," and "Twice Is Life," all written by John Merrill. (Alan Brackett, PBC's other songwriter tended to write more commercially; his compositional abilities were shown to greater effect on LP #2.) Sandi Robinson was a lovely singer, as many reviewers have noted, and she helps elevate some of the more mundane material. And actually, while the harmonies are not as ethereal as some of the Mamas & Papas or as rhythmically engaging as the Airplane's, they are generally worth hearing. A B or B- grade, if you go in for that sort of thing.
Great is another story, however. The songs do not have a cold veneer like I originally thought 35 years (ouch!) ago. Instead, PCB plays harder and tighter, emphasizing more of the Rock part of Pop/Rock. Bill Wolf was a stronger, more inventive guitarist than the previous lead of Lance Fent. His more overtly San Francisco-influenced psychedelic licks (think CJ Fish a la Barry Melton or David Cohen) balanced well with John Merrill's more traditional rock `n' roll approach to tone and rhythm. Speaking of rhythm: the rhythm section of bassist Alan Brackett and drummer Jim Voight made a great leap forward on this LP, playing with greater dynamism and subtlety. There are two tracks over 6 minutes each which allow the whole band to stretch out instrumentally (and vocally, for that matter, too), thus giving us more of a good sense of their improvisational abilities. The song quality is more consistently superior to the first LP. In fact, I challenge you to find a better 1st side of an LP from a West Coast 1960s band than Side 1 of Great. Other than Love's side A of Da Capo, I doubt there is as strong a side of musical composition/performance as "Turn On a Friend" (a stronger single and lead-off cut than "It's A Happening Thing" from Spreading, which other reviewers seem to favour) through the half-minute vocal swirl of "Invasion of the Poppy People" (okay, okay, the title is dated, but not necessarily the music). Lyrically, PCB was no great shakes. Themes were largely freedom and romance, neither surprising given the times. Sometimes their best lines bump up against awful ones in the same song (try Alan Brackett's "Living Dream," for one). Despite, the lack of profundity and wit in many of the songs, PBC brings out the luster of the tunes through their energetic playing and imaginative vocalizing. And this is a real album, not just a hodge-podge collection of songs, and not one of the many dreadful "concept" LPs hurriedly recorded and rushed to shelves after the success of Sgt. Pepper. Great gets an A (A+ for Side 1, A- for Side 2).
P.S.: The bonus tracks range from bad Mamas & Papas ("It's So Hard Hard") to soulful pop (courtesy of Sandi Robinson and writer Brackett in "I'm a Fool") to bittersweet nostalgia ("Peter Pan" - we can fly off to Neverland...we're never gonna grow old, etc.). "Peter Pan" also reminds me of my "live" experience with PBC, who opened for Spirit at the `Lectric Theatre, the Chicago northside club owned and operated by Aaron Russo (later Bette Midler's manager). I actually recall very little of PBC's performance; but I do remember, with great sadness, nearly colliding with singer Sandi in-between sets. Like Peter Pan, she never grew old - and it's hard to believe she's been dead for over 15 years - but I wish she and her true, crystal voice were still around....