Monday, October 10, 2011

With strings attached

On a recent flight to the US I was scanning the choice of on-demand movies available on the vision-challenging 'state-of-the-art' seat-back TV and came across the legendary This Is Spinal Tap. Regarded as the greatest movie - fictional or factual - ever made about rock music, I'd forgotten just how damn funny it was.

Few real bands - if any - have ever refuted its accuracy and the mirror it hilariously held up to rock's splendid talent for the self-regarding and the delusional. It was - and still is - a tour bus staple. A tradition amongst music journalists, on being invited in to the rock star's abode, has been to note the copy of This Is Spinal Tap in prominent view on a shelf.

Despite its popularity, rare is the band to say: "Better not do that - too Tap." Which is why, on the release today of New Blood, Peter Gabriel's orchestral reworking of selected songs from his 37-year solo career, he may not have taken into account an interchange in the film between bassist Derek Smalls and Spinal Tap's blond lead singer, David St. Hubbins. Following the departure of guitarist Nigel Tufnell - they ruminate on the "gift of freedom":

St.Hubbins: "I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic, as you know." Smalls: "We're lucky. I mean people...people should be envying us." St.Hubbins: "I envy us."

Gabriel is one of music's most mercurial talents. His notoriously laborious writing process is lengthy only because, in his own words, "I'm an awkward bugger". When not endlessly tinkering with layer after layer of sound on his studio albums, he's forming human rights charities like Witness, or The Elders, the thought leadership collective of former world leaders, or he's investing in technology interests like OD2 (the online music service later sold to Nokia), the music streaming site WE7, or the recording equipment giant Solid State Logic.

So the fact that Gabriel's latest album is a consecutive release to take the orchestral route, following last year's Scratch My Back, suggests an exhaustion of new ideas. Just as MTV Unplugged gave a new lease of life to many an electrified back catalogue, the orchestral revisit has often appeared in the absence of anything new. George Michael and Sting (someone never to shy away from demonstrating his apparent eclectic prowess) have both recently toured with orchestras, with Sting also releasing an album with full orchestral accompaniment, all in the notable absence of any new studio material.

Scratch My Back wasn't Gabriel's first recorded encounter with an orchestra - his eponymous debut solo album in 1977 contained the extremely cinematic Down The Dolce Vita - but it represented a new take, "reimagining" songs, such as a paired-down version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble and a dark and dramatic read of Arcade Fire's My Body Is A Cage

New Blood is a little more conventional: like it's predecessor, Gabriel and arranger John Metcalfe replace the rock conventions of drum and guitar with the polyphonic range of a 48-piece orchestra.

But whereas Scratch My Back served up some genuine surprises, both in the choice of songs as well as their execution, New Blood - perhaps because of the familiarity borne of over three decades of listening to some of the tracks - is more of an album of, well, Peter Gabriel songs set to an orchestra.

As one of the first owners of a Fairlight CMI, the sampling keyboard that came to define 80s pop music, Gabriel belies some of his inherited sense of innovation with New Blood (his father, Ralph, was an electrical engineer and inventor). That's not to say it lacks invention, it's just so tempting to think you're listening to an album of remixes. Orchestral remixes.

That said, as a long-term fan, I am bound to like the new version of San Jacinto, which is painted from a bigger palette and on a bigger canvas than the original on Peter Gabriel 4 (or Security as it was later renamed to help bewildered souls unable to distinguish between the first four albums, all named Peter Gabriel).

Equally, I'm intrigued by the new approach to In Your Eyes. In it's original form, a lively, African-rhythmed love song which has provided the keynote to many a new relationship; on New Blood, it is transformed into something sparse, choral and bewitchingly cold. Likewise, Mercy Street, Gabriel's tribute to the author Anne Rice, which is more open than the claustrophobic original on So. Others work less well: Digging In The Dirt, written as a therapeutic, analytic and somewhat angry conclusion to Gabriel's failed first marriage, loses the sinister tone with the addition of an orchestra, while Rhythm Of The Heat loses its unique - for 1982 - world music undercurrent, the African drumming that has since been used by many a lazy documentary director struggling to find an 'ethnic' soundtrack.

New Blood will be a fan's favourite for sure: we'll tolerate the mild disappointments and rave over the triumphs, as we're supposed to. We would just hope, however, that Gabriel will now return to the studio and make a 'proper' album, even if it takes another 10 years as all his others do.

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