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I've been a Peter Gabriel fan for years and years, collecting all his albums and singles and I've even got his earliest Genesis record which sounds a lot like a concert performance from a boys only boarding school - that's dedication for you! As a Gabriel fan I've come to expect long waits between albums and was eagerly awaiting the next studio album after his fantastic collection 'Up'. When the news came out that Gabriel was doing a new album of covers I was slightly dissapointed but, knowing how soulful and tender Gabriel's voice is, combined with his creative genius, I was hopeful he was going to come up with something interesting.
The concept of the album sounded very exciting initially. Gabriel intended the release to be a two part album. The first would be his album of cover songs and it would be called 'Scratch My Back'. The second album would be a compliation album of Gabriel tracks covered by the artists Gabriel had covered on the first album. I think that's a wonderful idea and believe it could have been brilliant...had it worked.
Whilst Gabriel's release 'Scratch My Back' was successfully produced the follow up has never come to fruition. There have been various reasons for the set-backs including the fact that one of the artists who Gabriel covered, Radiohead, reneged on their promise to record a Gabriel track once they'd heard (and presumably hated) Gabriel's cover of their song 'Street Spirit'. Another refusal came from David Bowie whose track 'Heroes' was covered. No reasons were given this time. Apparantly a few artists also might have been a bit lazy and just couldn't spare the time. Instead of the follow up second album therfore it was decided to gradually release the Gabriel covers as double A-side singles throughout 2010. What I've heard so far has been unspectacular and rather karaoke though.
Gabriel's album received mixed reviews and there has been a lot of murmuring from critics who say that this is the type of album released when an artist dries up. I personally am quite dissapointed with the album and find a lot of it to be simply unplayable. Let me explain why. The whole album is performed by Gabriel accompanied by an orchestra. It's a novel idea but it means that all of the songs are slowed down. Some of them are so slow it sounds like Gabriel is talking rather than singing. Since Gabriel's voice is quite gravelly and raspy the slow speed of some of the tracks make them sound utterly depressing.
There are 12 tracks on the album. The first is David Bowies 'Heroes'. I'm a huge fan of the original and it's a big song to tackle. Gabriel released the song as part of the Help Haiti campaign. I find the song at first to sound unintentionally funny. The reference to dolphins just sounds like a crazy old man babbling to himself. Once I stop laughing I begin listening to a voice that sounds broken and fragile and it begins to sound ultra disturbing. I mean like something out of a horror movie performed by the lunatic who has just slaughtered a village! It's a memorable cover, no doubt about it, but I just can't listen to it without laughing and crying.
Paul Simon's 'The Boy in The Bubble' is unrecognisable from the original. Gabriel stips this back so that what stands out are the incredible lyrics. He gives the song a completely new meaning. It's sombre and uncomfortable and the reworking works this time. It's a tad weepy for my liking though. I feel like I haven't grown old with Peter.
Elbow's 'Mirrorball' is my favourite track on the album because it actually sounds like a song Gabriel might have written himself. The orchestra sounds great on this one and Gabriel's vocals are sharp. It's a pity Elbow couldn't have come up with a more interesting version of Gabriel's 'Mercy Street' in return.
'Flume' is a Bon Iver song. I'd never actually heard of either song or artist previously. I really love the lyrics of this song as they are so pretty. Having tracked down the original on Youtube I think Gabriel has done a great job in transforming it. There is a romance to this song and although it's very soft and sentimental it has a calming and heartwarming effect on me. I love that some of the notes are old style Gabriel and it's obvious he struggles to reach them but I love to hear that struggle!
Talking Head's 'Listening Wind' sounds at times as if Gabriel is struggling to keep up with the orchestra. Although I can see why this song might appeal to Gabriel from listening to the lyrics (they remind me a bit of 'Games Without Frontiers) I just don't think the whole thing works in an orchestral setting. I mean, some of it sounds good then it begins to sound messy again. Towards the end the song really improves as Gabriel's harmonies kick in and the violins assume an exciting violent stance. I'm somewhat undecided about whether I really like this or not though!
Lou Reed is an artist a lot of trendy people might want to cover, I think, and Gabriel does his 'The Power of The Heart'. Gabriel treads lightly and it turns the song into a sleepy love song that may soothe and warm hearts but it's a bit over-sentimental and uncool in my opinion. I prefer Reed's more honest, raw version.
'The Book Of Love' is one of Gabriel's best on the album and the song has appeared on a movie soundtrack. The song gives new meaning to the lyrics which were previously full of humour and turns them into a kind of slushy dedication. It's a lovely heartwarming track although again it's very slow and calm.
'My Body is A Cage' is an Arcade Fire song and unfortunately I find it plays like a song to commit suicide to. It's very dark at the beginning with Gabriel's murky voice and a deadly serious piano. At the middle section the orchestra explodes in a horrific frenzy. The original had a swagger and an oddness to it but this version is like some kind of anthem for the doomed.
'I Think It's Going To Rain Today' is another gloom-fest with lyrics that talk of "skies streaked with grey". It's really depressing and wintery.
'Apres Moi' is a Regina Spektor number. The orchestra definitely out-performs Gabriel on this track. The violins and cellos are really sharp and alive whilst Gabriel's whispering vocals are almost lost in the mix. The original is way better and sparky - have a listen to that if you've never heard this artist.
'Philadeliphia' by Neil Young is a song from the soundtrack of the movie by the same name. It's a rather serious and dark song to begin with but Gabriel manages to make it even more so. Much too whiney and old fashioned. The brass section in the song make this sound a little like the Coronation Street theme! Press the fast forward button.
I can see why Radiohead were a little displeased with this cover version. I find it appalling to listen to. It's a half-talked, half-mumbled, occaisonally out of tune mess. It's way too slow and strange and again it sounds like it's a song composed for those who want to harm themselves! Just horrible. I almost can't believe Im saying this about a man who is my ultimate music idol, but I'm sorry I just hate it!
Ultimately, it's an album that I've bought out of dedication to my favourite artist but which I find myself disliking overall. My favourite songs on the album are Mirrorball, Flume and The Book of Love. The rest of the tracks I am basically ignoring and omitting from my ipod! In my opinion the majority of songs on this album aren't Gabriel's finest work but may appeal if you like the original artists or like soft, orchestral songs.
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This review also appears on Ciao!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 The Boy In The Bubble
5 Listening Wind
6 The Power Of The Heart
7 My Body Is A Cage
8 The Book of Love
9 I Think Its Going To Rain Today
10 Apres Moi
12 Street Spirit (Fade Out)