Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

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I’m a Peter Gabriel fan.  Aside from my collection of Genesis and solo releases, the proof is in the money spent for concerts.  I saw him in concert in 1982 at the Meriweather Post Pavilion on his “Security” Tour, $12.50.  A truly awesome show.  I saw him again at the Omni in Atlanta in 1992, a venue never associated with high fidelity audio and later, to my delight, demolished.  Cost: $25.00.  Skip forward another 10 years, and I saw him at Chastain Park Amphitheater, this time for $90.  Inflation or Ticketmaster, I’m not sure which.

I’m a fan, despite an observable trend of fan-cruelty by Gabriel. 

After So, his 1986, MTV-enabled commercial triumph, the sky seemed the limit as he tailored his musical instincts for a wider audience.  Instead of forging on, however, he became a recluse and six years later released Us, a troubled CD representing a troubled time that largely returned to the musical stylings that suited him well enough prior to SoUp, released 10 years (!) later and in keeping with his two letter titles, had several songs that spoke upward in his outlook, but the majority of lyrics remained inscrutable or detached, and the music was often forgettable.

Granted, Gabriel is a man of varied interests, promoting music from other cultures, developing music for soundtracks, and working on other collaborations.  Fine.  I can understand that an artist may not feel compelled to release music every couple years, but seven or more years between releases is criminal unless inspiration is completely lost.  Still, as the original lead singer of Genesis in their progressive years, along with some great work as a solo artist, he’s inherited enough goodwill amongst fans that they wait… and wait.

So here we are in 2010, and after 8 years, he blesses us with a new release, Scratch My BackPeter Gabriel - Scratch My BackTo begin, I understand artists need new challenges and seek new directions.  I actually hope for this amongst established artists, and Gabriel is certainly deserving to try whatever he wants.  When an artist stretches in this way, he risks much as the work may not find an audience.

There are changes here, and to Gabriel’s credit, they’re not hidden until after one makes a purchase.  He clearly advertises this for what it is:  different from his past work.

This CD includes covers of others’ songs, a surprisingly strong and informed selection that hold tremendous potential for what Gabriel might do with them.  Additionally, given the time between his previous releases, one might think he would have had ample time to write a thoroughly solid set of songs for each CD, but he hasn’t.   Given the possibilities of the material chosen here, there’s a real possibility of inspiration.

But, that’s not the only difference here.  He also dismisses his band, trading them in for an orchestra and piano.  For progressive rock listeners, we’re okay with that.  Mellotrons, keyboards… they replace and displace a full symphonic sound to some degree, and many aging bands have recorded or performed live with local symphonies.  

However, Gabriel also jettisons the other trappings of rock/pop/modern music, that being guitar, bass, and drums or any striking use of keyboards. 

I applaud the intention, but decry the result.  I’m thankful that I was able to listen to this in full on Napster and saved my cash.

The CD begins with David Bowie’s “Heroes.”  While singing at a level low enough to avoid public embarrassment (should one be walking on a sidewalk), Gabriel yet manages to coax a dramatic treatment of the lyrics while divorced from an observable beat or particular musical tunefulness.  This immediately suggests that the song (and please, not the whole CD), is a self-absorbed, indulgent and pretentious work.

Which it is.

The second song, Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble,” points out that Gabriel never was that great a singer.  He has a distinctive voice, truly, but it’s never been particularly notable in range or strength, and it’s best presented when backed by more diverse sounds than an orchestra stuck in “elevator music” mode.

“Flume,” by Bon Iver, at least holds interest through the entirety of the song.  Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” aspires to something greater, but despite a hint of 1974 -Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in Gabriel’s voice, it eventually succumbs to disinterest for being overly long.  Park AvenueThe CD concludes with a plodding version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” which puts the final nail in the coffin of this sad disappointment, may it rest in peace.

As a side note, I recently visited Park Avenue CD in Orlando, FL, a fine indie CD store that I’m happy to support in rebellion against iTunes and the coming Cloud.  I couldn’t help but take a picture of one of their particular offerings, and, of course, I wondered what manner of dreck would be disposed of so callously.  Now I know.

Suggested Song: “Flume”

Rating: 1 of 5 Stars

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