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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 165 - 02/28/10

Peter Gabriel
Scratch My Back
Real World/Virgin Records

Peter has gone back to his roots. I think the first recording available with him as a solo artist after he left Genesis was a version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" for a documentary film called All This And World War II from 1976. It included loads of lousy cover versions by The Beatles. Peter's contribution with strings and all is one of the few decent on the double soundtrack album.

It's nearly eight years since Peter's last release. Now he offers a bunch of cover versions without guitars and drums, only classical strings, piano and wind instruments. It's a balanced mix of songs by mature artists (Bowie, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Randy Newman and Talking Heads) and those a generation or two younger (Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Regina Spektor, Magnetic Fields and Elbow). The songs sound closer to Peter's songbook than the originators, though. They all start oh so quiet, slow and emotional, with one exception, "Après Moi" (Regina Spektor), that turns quiet after about 21 seconds. Several also include a dramatic crescendo towards the end. Most of the arrangements sound pretty conventional to me, in the symphonic way. A few are in the vein of more modern day composers like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Michael Nyman or Gavin Bryars. "Heroes" for instance, sounds closer to the version by Philip Glass than the original by Bowie and Brian Eno.

The majority of songs are too much of a symphonic soup for my liking. The aforementioned "Après Moi" "Heroes" and "Listening Wind" (Talking Heads) with more unconventional arrangements stand out along with the stripped down piano songs "Bubble Boy" (Paul Simon) "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" (Randy Newman) and the first half of "My Body Is A Cage" (Arcade Fire). The bonus disc includes three alternative versions or mixes of songs from the main album where Peter also gives a go at Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset", probably the best single ever. Like "Strawberry Fields" it's a decent version. It's a paradox, though, that Peter, the most profiled ambassador for ethnic music of them all, bases his own recordings on the opposite approach, reaching for perfection with written and fully arranged music of the traditional scholared European kind. Let's hope for more spontaneous recordings next time.

Scratch My Back seems and sounds like a mediocre idea when one has run out of good ideas for self-penned songs. It would've worked very well as an EP, though. The originality lies in its successor And I'll Scratch Yours. Peter has made a deal with the songwriters who each will submit a recording of a Peter Gabriel song in return. It was planned to be released simultaneously with Scratch My Back, but as with all recording activity involving Peter Gabriel, it takes time. I hope it will include "Here Comes The Flood" from Peter's debut solo album (and also Robert Fripp's debut solo album Exposure). Listening to some of the songs of Scratch My Back a full-blown symphonic version of the old prune seems to be missing here, somehow.

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