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Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

on February 19, 2010, 3:15am

Artists have been covering artists since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Usually we get compilations of younger artists offering interpretations of songs they grew up on, or Scarlett Johansson covering Tom Waits. In the case of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, it is quite the opposite. The album features an icon from the past covering the critical darlings of today to great success (for the most part).

The idea was simple enough. Gabriel sings with non-electronic accompaniment, re-interpreting both popular songs and deep cuts in the process. His voice comes across with such clarity you would think he was singing a few feet away. The stripped-down vocals paint Gabriel as an older man, unshielded by auto-tune and barely afforded background vocalists. The songs are then given a completely different feel, thanks to producer Bob Ezrin (The Wall).

As for the arrangements, the piano and orchestrations work beautifully, providing the strength for Gabriel’s fragile vocals. The musicians tune up at the beginning of the album, before the former Genesis frontman recites the opening of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. At the halfway point, the song lifts up, the strings erupting into a storm around Gabriel as he sings, “I/I can remember/Standing/Standing by the wall.” It’s a great start to the record, and a sign of songs to come.

One of the standouts on Scratch My Back is Gabriel’s take on Elbow’s “Mirrorball”. Its playful strings transform into a soaring arrangement come the chorus, as though each note is a reflection of a spinning mirror ball. Gabriel’s ultimate decision to go strings-heavy continues to pay off with a haunting version of Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind”, a sweeping rendition of Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart”, and the epic false start of Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi”.

Gabriel manages to become Tom Waits for Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”. The album also includes a strings-drenched redo of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love”. You may have heard this version a few years ago if you were one of the 17 people who saw Shall We Dance?

Many songs garnering early buzz deliver, except for one we’ll get to later. Gabriel’s vocals on “Flume”, particularly the chorus, should elicit chills. The horns linger beautifully in the background on Gabriel’s take of the Bon Iver track. The Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” is a big affair here and, production-wise, is the centerpiece of the whole record. The erupting orchestra kicks the listener in the face when the song reaches its climax. It’s just another success on an album full of ‘em.

If there is a blemish on the record, it would be the cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. An opportunity was wasted here, and the song doesn’t stand out either vocally or musically. But that shouldn’t dismay a would-be purchaser from buying this album. Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back is one of the best albums of the year thus far.

* Keep an eye out for I’ll Scratch Yours, when the artists covered on this album cover a song by Gabriel.

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