Peter Gabriel And I’ll Scratch Yours (Real World) ⋆⋆⋆
Peter Gabriel has pushed many a boundary during his 45-year career, from wearing a bizarre floral headdress onstage as Genesis’s original singer to the early embrace of digital media as a solo artist. His latest release is also fairly novel, given that he doesn’t actually appear on it.
And I’ll Scratch Yours is the second part of a reciprocal covers project. Album one – Scratch My Back – emerged in 2010, and featured the British singer’s often radical reworks of songs by 12 well-known acts. The plan was to get those same artists to record versions of Gabriel’s songs in return and after several years’ delay most have now responded. The results shine a welcome light on Gabriel’s songwriting talents, although not all are necessarily complimentary.
One eye-catching name on the cast list is the recently departed Lou Reed and his offering is less than easy on the ear. The notoriously uncompromising rocker ignores Solsbury Hill’s rousing melody and just rambles the lyrics atonally over a distorted guitar. It’s very Lou Reed. But then Gabriel’s protégé Joseph Arthur chooses a similar musical backing for Shock the Monkey, albeit in a more tuneful, less memorable fashion.
Arthur is actually here as a substitute, due to three artists opting out. Radiohead were apparently keen, but withdrew. David Bowie is represented by his old producer Brian Eno, who provides a suitably abstract Mother of Violence (while The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt adopts a curious Bowie-like accent for Gabriel’s obscure album track Not One of Us). And Feist replaces her fellow Canadian Neil Young with a valiant attempt at Don’t Give Up, which also leave you pining for the original. This happens often.
The collision of artist and song occasionally pays rich dividends, and the album opens with three of its strongest tracks. A jaunty David Byrne and atmospheric Bon Iver successfully showcase less-celebrated Gabriel singles, while the glorious Blood of Eden is given fresh life by Regina Spektor. Later, Elbow prove the perfect match for the majestic melancholy of Mercy Street.
As for the remainder: Arcade Fire’s relatively faithful take on Games Without Frontiers is really more of a pastiche. Paul Simon makes a predictable but understated return to African themes with Biko, and Randy Newman’s awkward trawl through Big Time is best forgotten.
The record’s undoubted star remains the absent Gabriel. Nobody does it better.
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