Tuesday, March 9, 2010

ALBUM REVIEW: Peter Gabriel

As I detailed in my previous post about Peter Gabriel's first release in eight years (read it here), Scratch My Back is the first offering of a two-part cover versions project. The second will be released later this year and, predictably enough, will be called I'll Scratch Yours, and artists featured here will return the favour by covering a selection of Gabriel's tracks. A musical swap shop to put it simply.

The most dominant element of Scratch My Back is Gabriel's voice, which takes centre stage throughout the album. The 12 tracks are theatrical pieces almost, with no guitars, no drums; just Gabriel's rich and grainy vocals over beautifully orchestrated arrangements. Most tracks follow the same pattern of a slow and wistful beginning leading to a big and powerful climax. A very sombre mood, that prevails throughout, is set with the opening track "Heroes". Along with many others, the song is almost unrecognisable at first, which proves that Scratch My Back is not just a simple exercise in throwing together some faithful cover versions. Elbow's "Mirrorball" becomes gentle and sorrowful,  Bon Iver's "Flume" is transformed from a comforting folk piece to a big, swooning ballad, while Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble" is delivered in a dramatic funeral-like fashion. You really have to try hard to pull out many of the melodies here, which sometimes makes you wonder what Gabriel is hoping to accomplish with this album, but then there are the times when it actually works. The aforementioned "Mirrorball", "Flume" and The Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love" are simply stunning, with arrangements that allow Gabriel's voice to reach its full potential, conveying emotion that other artists could never manage to evoke. Lou Reed's "The Power of Your Heart" and Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" stay the most true to the originals in their quiet elegance and simple delivery.

Gabriel's approach begins to wear thin towards the end however. The choice to include Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" is something that I found questionable after my first post on this album, and hearing it certainly didn't prove that thought unjustified. It just didn't strike a chord with me. "Street Spirit" was unconvincing and Gabriel struggled to capture the raw and powerful agnst that this song needs to harness in its delivery. Again, I was unimpressed.

This is certainly a huge departure from Gabriel's usual musical style and genius. It is quite possible that only true fans of his will really warm to this album. I wouldn't be a huge fan, but I wouldn't write this off completely. Music should always have some effect on us, whether it be that it makes us happy, emotional, comforted, or even frustrated or uncomfortable. What can't be denied is that Scratch My Back has the ability to have an effect. It is without any contemporary overbearing production tricks; it is an album that is just about the music. These are stripped-down versions of other artists' songs that have been delicately interpreted, flavoured with beautiful orchestration, and then delivered through the exposed and emotion-filled vocal talents of Peter Gabriel. Having listened to it through three times now I have to admit I am ready to put it away for a bit. I appreciate it for what it is but now it's time to get back to what I love best. Not my cup of tea really, but it could be yours. Worth checking out at least. Now we eagerly await these artists offerings for the forthcoming I’ll Scratch Yours. I wonder what they'll come up with...

Track Listing- Scratch My Back

(David Bowie)
The Boy In The Bubble (Paul Simon)
Mirrorball (Elbow)
(Bon Iver)
Listening Wind
(Talking Heads)
The Power Of The Heart (Lou Reed) 
My Body Is A Cage (Arcade Fire)
The Book Of Love (The Magnetic Fields)
I Think It's Going To Rain Today (Randy Newman) 
Apres Moi (Regina Spektor)
Philadelphia (Neil Young) 
Street Spirit (Fade Out) (Radiohead)

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