Real-Time Review: Peter Gabriel / Scratch My Back (Archives, 2010)

First heard and written in the same 53 minutes. Overall, a good purchase, a concept with some potential pitfalls that Gabriel largely avoids. He’s smart to put the emphasis on his voice while also giving it less to compete with (nothing but piano/strings/horns). And hats off and a drink for the arrangers and musicians. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ready … set …

– From the lack of the classic original’s opening bombast, Gabriel makes clear that this is going to be done his way. The Glass-esque strings that come in later work both to build drama and deliver an ending.

“The Boy In The Bubble” – Again, a rollicking band reduced to one piano, and initially one note at a time, at that. By the end of the second verse, slivers of the minimal arrangement may start to remind you of the sparser moments of Birdy or Passion. Part of the original’s allure is the way Simon skips his vocal across the meter and over the surface of the big music beneath it. This pace makes the song do without that asset completely. Unlike “Heroes”, where you can argue stripping it down puts an appropriately stark light on the lyric, I’m not sure it accomplishes anything here.

“Mirrorball” – Less of a contrast with the original’s music and vocal, since Elbow’s original involves strings fairly heavily, too. But these strings receive a much different arrangement, and the lyric is the first that comes off as one Gabriel might’ve written once upon a time. The overall level of drama and narrative suits him perfectly, and the orchestral flourishes give it a distinct identity. Well done.

“Flume” – No, I don’t know all these songs; this is the first I don’t own, and I’m not looking up the original artist for the purposes of this little exercise. This track does bring out the first higher-range, full-voice Gabriel, which is welcome anytime and works as something new for the ear this far in. The feminine/nocturnal/lunar imagery makes it no surprise that he was drawn to this lyric. “She’s the moon, she’s the moon …” Yeah, been there, man.

“Listening Wind” – Another where I reveal my ignorance regarding the original. The syncopated counterplay provides the vocal with a branchlike bed — different directions, lots of space between, but very strong. “The wind in my heart …” sounds in a way like the first overt chorus of the disc. Again, much familiarity with his solo catalog makes Gabriel’s attraction to this lyric understandable, following one man through his journey/mission. Is it a mission like “Family Snapshot” or something less sinister? The odds don’t feel good, but the performance is.

Familiarity with his solo catalog makes Gabriel’s attraction to the “Listening Wind” lyric understandable, following one man through his journey/mission. Is it a mission like “Family Snapshot” or something less sinister? The odds don’t feel good, but the performance is.

“The Power Of The Heart” – The piano returns to the fore after taking a few minutes off. What develops is a warmer arrangement, gentle chords and softer, stepping horns. At almost six minutes, this is a good time to note how good this recording sounds. The vocal and piano are right up next to you, and the orchestra is just the right amount further away but still crystal clear. It’s easy and inviting on the ears. “You know me, I like to dream a lot / Of this and that, and what is not …” The details give the silhouette of a couple, but the core (no pun intended) is universally direct.

“My Body Is A Cage” – And so Gabriel pivots, staying focused on the flesh but shifting to the tragic, via the powerhouse from Arcade Fire. With another six minutes, this arrangement is in no hurry to unfold. A slow march moves through the occasionally thorny chords until the middle section, when the orchestra takes over and Gabriel serves some spookier utterances before it winds back down. “Just because you’re forgotten / Doesn’t mean you’re forgiven,” great line. All in all, while Gabriel takes a shot at taking us heavenward as the character requests, he can’t match the pathos delivered in the original.

“The Book Of Love” – Great first verse by The Magnetic Fields to change the feel, and the music is less ambitious but just right for this song, a pit stop somewhere in romance between the shattered and the melancholy.

“I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” – Where “Heroes” got turned upside down right off the bat, here Gabriel sticks right by Newman for the opening, and it’s hard to argue. (Notice how some of those chords pass through the verse just like Tom Waits’ would.) “Human kindness is overflowing / And I think it’s going to rain today.” Yup, that’s a rare straight cover FTW.

“Apres Moi” – OK, I had to look, Regina Spektor. I’m sure she is thrilled. Ha, “After me, comes the flood …” a sly nod there. The two-faced song structure plays well in Gabriel’s hands, and the orchestration reflects the alternate vibes leading into the homestretch crescendo.

“Philadelphia” – We visit Neil Young for the penultimate track, the title song from the Oscar-winning film. Gabriel can’t give the vocal the child-like quality that makes Neil’s own so affecting, but the chord progression makes for a lovely, gentle walk led by the horns. Can’t miss this chance to say that my favorite song on that soundtrack is Gabriel’s “Lovetown”. Back here, it’s a pretty song, done fine, but it feels a little slight at first listen. Going by the smart sequencing so far, that’s probably intentional to make way for …

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” – Here’s an example of a cover allowing a lot more of the lyric to come through than perhaps the average listener had caught before. Maybe that’s because Gabriel is a little freer and more conversational in delivering the verse. This is an opportunity for one of those trademark flips into falsetto, but otherwise things stay quiet, steady, mournful here. I understand why neither Radiohead nor Gabriel wanted to put it in the middle of a running order, but as with the Arcade Fire cover, the result falls a little flat compared to the punch or level of cinema in the original.

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