Trace of a Feeling

Bert Saraco [USA]

Paling well ... CD1 – 21 tracks, 79:41 min; CD2 – 21 tracks, 79:41 min.

A Mammoth Task
42 songs. Well over 2½ hours of music. This calls for a long road trip or a rare period of domestic isolation. Or both. At any rate, the new Palers’ Project 2 CD set will not leave the listener wanting – its sheer musical bulk insures that, like the man says, there’s something for everyone.

‘A critic is a man who knows the way, but can’t drive the car’ … or so the saying goes. In an effort not to run anyone over, I will offer an panoramic picture of this impressive collection of songs, highlighting some outstanding examples along the way. What lies ahead is a smattering … a brief overview … an attempt to paint a wallet-size picture of a wall-size musical mural. I’ll try, as much as possible, to refer to the 'stage-names’ of the artists who are bringing this music to your ears, and will, as the old standard goes, ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative ...’ and, well, I might mess with ‘Mr In-Between’, at least a little.

Let’s skip the light fandango ...

On this third outing, The Palers’ Project offers more hits than misses, more outstanding tracks, and a more over-all consistent package than they have in previous efforts. Reactions to various songs are, of course, subjective, and what one listener considers a triumph might be on another listener’s 'what-were-they-thinking’ list. Here’s what I’m looking for: the well-executed adaptation of a song that we all know and love, re-imagined, but still retaining what made the original great – respecting the words, melody and chord structure, but not being held captive to, nor clumsily aping, the source. I want to hear fresh musical voices, but I don’t want the embers of that original creative fire to be so cold that it doesn’t still warm the session. I want to sense the joy, and love, and, yes – even the respect, that the interpreter feels for the source material. Sometimes the instrumental performance is right, but the vocal is the thin end of the musical wedge. Other times there’s a great arrangement, but weak musicianship.

It’s tea-time at the circus, and I want to see the hoops and high-wires navigated just so … it’s not an easy task, and yet Trace of a Feeling contains a good number of outstanding songs. Naturally, there are times when (for me) some performances didn’t quite measure up. More on that later.

Ah, but there are other times when everything seems to go just right! Interestingly, several of the best tracks on this project turn out to be somewhat in the Country music genre – a style that I’m normally not very enthusiastic about, but which sounds so persuasive on these songs that it’s impossible not to thoroughly enjoy the results. The first song on the two discs, The Truth Won’t Fade Away, performed by In 2 Deep, starts and ends with a riff reminiscent of The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face, and yet immediately establishes a Country & Western groove with a very ‘Nashville’ vocal style, and appropriately honky-tonk piano – the song sounds very much at home in this unexpected setting. The same can be said for The Bluegrass Geeks' version of Chasing For the Chop with its infectious easy-swinging style and easy-on-the-ears duet vocal. Fiddles, banjo, and mandolin sound as at home as bass, drum, piano and guitar on this ‘Oh, Gary, Where Art Thou?’ tribute to one of Brooker’s solo tracks. All This And More gets a more laid-back approach, with Gary Richardi going solo with vocals and all instruments, including what sounds like mandolin and pedal-steel, off-set by some excellent stinging electric guitar. A solid blues in its original form, House of Usher gives Crucifiction Lane a real ‘good ol’ boy’ country vocal treatment, along with an unexpected tease of Für Elise going right into the post-'beanstalk' build-up from In Held 'Twas in I, leading back into the second verse, only to be reprised at the end of the song – very convincing vocal and instrumental work (the guitar work on this track is stunning, and very Trower-esque), not only here, but on all of these country-tinged performances.

Even Can’t You Feel my Love gets a bit of a country treatment in the second of second appearances on this set, this time with Bellaire and Dunne handling all instruments and voices. The same song appears on the first disc (in the same spot – Track 11!) as a powerful ballad with a gospel-style ending, with Fran Glendining adding a nicely-modulated vocal to Roland and Peter Clare’s confident musical accompaniment.

Other musical genres are also well-represented throughout the two discs: Heavy Metal fans will enjoy Never Void (feat. Sebastian Katzberg and Christian Braunschmidt) head-banging through About to Die as if the song was written with crunching guitars and double-bass pedal drumming in mind! The song has great energy and the vocal is done appropriately for that genre.

Continuing in the high-energy rock'n'roll category is Northern Sky’s recording of Whisky Train, the ferocious vocals of Delethia Ridley taking us somewhat by surprise. This one’s got power to spare, and a killer guitar solo. If you’re looking for a hard-rocking blues number, you’ll find an absolute gem three songs before the whole project ends. The Shepard Rockette Band have recorded a more blues-oriented version of All Our Dreams are Sold than we could’ve, well, dreamed of. I would go as far as to say that this just might be a direction that Gary Brooker and company might want to take the song in future performances! All of the playing is very good, and the guitar work is something that I think Trower himself could’ve been proud of having played. For me, this is one of the best tracks out of all forty-two ... and, yes – that is the legendary Rockette Morton of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band fame!

Hang On Rose, another Brooker song from the solo years, is given a somewhat new-wave vibe by Mad For Bread. The song is very well executed and performed with a refreshing air of confidence. 

It’s been implied that Dylan was an influence on Procol Harum, but what if the reverse was true? What if Bob were to cover a Procol Harum song? Oh, let’s say Every Dog Will Have His Day? The Basement Apes will satisfy your curiosity and give you a few good laughs when they realise that fantasy toward the end of the first disc.

If you’re looking for a more psychedelic / avant-garde approach, let The Library Nuns take you 'Beyond the Gates of Cerdes,' where a certain Wizard will mesmerize you with space-jazz keyboard runs in his swirling, melodic cauldron.

We have everything from Heavy Metal to faux-Dylan – so, what’s left? ... Church Music!’ Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature) closes Disc 1 with great, billowy swells of a solo church organ. Don’t worry – no offering will be taken.

Of course, there are several tracks on these two discs that simply defy strict categorisation. Here’s a small sampling of some of the more successful interpretations:

Bringing Home the Bacon is ‘brought’ by Von Gundy’s Time-Funnel, and unfolds the very-familiar tune in a creative and ambitious way. The basic melody and structure of the song are largely left intact (with some impressive reproduction of guitar parts) but are augmented by such elements as ‘baby’ sounds and a very 60s-sounding vocal chorus (think: The Association) singing the basic lick, as well as adding some interesting ‘back-up singer’ vocal parts – a successful, unique, fun approach to a signature Procol tune.

Butterfly Boys takes on new life through the efforts of The Doubtful Guests, who deliver the song with a totally different feel from the original version. This arrangement explores the various possibilities of the song, and stretches the boundaries without losing the melody and underlying structure of the piece. This track features one of the best vocal performances in the collection, as well as typically powerful guitar work from one Geoff Whitehorn! Kudos for a captivating arrangement that works right from the beginning, all the way to the powerful end! We also get a tease in the excellent middle instrumental section, where we hear a suggestion of the instrumental portion of About To Die. This track is certainly a highlight of not only Trace of a Feeling, but of all of the Paler CDs to date.

Ronnie D’Addario contributes As Strong As Samson and keeps the song very true to its structure and melody, but brings layers of beauty to the performance that shine a new light on the whole piece. The multi-tracked vocals are a joy to listen to, and sound like The Beach Boys on their finest day. The entire song is a pleasure, and the ending, particularly, is a wonderful moment and really reveals a lovely potential, realised with taste and skill. Without question, this is another highlight of this series of Palers’ CDs.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of light-hearted treatments of Procol Harum songs, but Robert’s Box is such an infectious good time that I have to single it out in this review. The Monoculaires (*ahem* … connect the dots, Beanstalkers!) take this amazing song, with its big sound and epic-ending, and transform it into a malt-shop bop, right out of the fifties, and even manage to insert a portion of Nothing But the Truth as a tasty side-dish. Put on your bobby-socks and get ready to rock to the old juke-box! Everything is bright and just-right, right down to the very authentic period rock'n'roll sax section. The vocals are just as much fun as the musical treatment. I can see a Ringo-cover of this one!

When reviewing a forty-two track project, going into detail about every song would make the reader’s eyes glaze over, and might cause the writer to check into a Witness Protection program, but there’s much more music to navigate through than what I’ve detailed here. There are moments throughout the project – a stunning guitar solo here, a clever twist to an arrangement there – that certainly make for interesting listening. To begin to pin-point individual performances in the face of the almost one hundred (!) players involved would challenge the bandwidth of any three websites combined (I’m lying. I just didn’t want to ‘go there.’)!

Are there moments on Trace of a Feeling that shine less brightly than others? Sure. I mentioned at the outset that I’d get to that issue – so, briefly, and without going into detail … a reasonable bit of criticism:

Not only will you get to hear some surprisingly good performances on this set, but you’ll also be reminded just how great a singer Gary Brooker is. Several times. If you know what I mean. Not every experiment works – at least not for me. There are some attempts that simply fall too far short, especially in light of the amazing music that is being paid tribute to on this project. There are some efforts that seem to reach a bit beyond the grasp of the artist. There are also, perhaps, some arrangements that have needlessly dispensed with, or radically changed, key elements of the original song without a good enough pay-off. Lastly, it’s my opinion that the melody of the song, whether the composer is Brooker, Fisher, Trower, or Grabham, is an element that is essential, and not to be tossed out. When you listen, you’ll draw your own conclusions.

I hope that this brief commentary on this whale of a musical package has whetted your appetite. For lovers of these wonderful songs, there are many pleasant surprises in store, and some versions that any Procol Harum fan will want to add to his, or her, collection. There are some very talented fans out there.

Now, I will put on my homburg, lace my shoes up wrong, wrap myself in a robe of silk, and walk toward Lime Street. Address all correspondences, complaints and threats to Monsieur R Monde.

Shine on!

(On the other hand, you can reach Bert Saraco at myspace as well as through the usual means …)

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