Saturday, March 27, 2010

Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back

Music is pretty important to me. I have it on most of the time and I listen pretty intently quite often. Every once in a while an album comes along that just stops me in my tracks. The latest one to do that – and the first one in a while – is Peter Gabriel’s gorgeous Scratch My Back. Scratch My Back is a covers album but it is unlike any other covers album I’ve ever come across. Gabriel likes to make rules for an album – the rule for his third solo album (Melt) was “no cymbals.” OK – that sounds weird but what happened was the drummers and producers came up with the gated drum sound that went on to define Phil Collins’ drum sound on his first few solo albums. The rule for Scratch My Back was “no guitars and no drums.”

The result, and apparently Gabriel did not necessarily start out looking at it this way, is an album of voice, piano and orchestra. These are not flimsy pop orchestrations. These are some of the most robust and exciting string arrangements I’ve heard lately. Of all the songs that Gabriel covers there are only a few that I was familiar with before the album. The album starts out with David Bowie’s “Heroes” and right off the bat you hear the strings announce that this is an album that you don’t want to listen to in a hurry. Not every song sends chills up my spine but an awful lot of them do. Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is amazingly haunting and Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart” is breathtaking. Gabriel’s slow take on Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” allows us to hear the lyrics in a new light – “the way the camera follows us in slo-mo” indeed. Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” is actually not much of a departure from the original but Gabriel’s voice gives it a different feel and gives it a new interpretation.

I looked at the reviews on Amazon and I find that people either love this album, giving it 4 or 5 stars or hate it, giving it 1 or 2. I totally get that – this album is going to either make you think Gabriel is a genius or it will bore you. I am firmly in the first category.