Saturday, September 28, 2013

A little lower, lower, a bit more...there! - Peter Gabriel: And I'll Scratch Yours

You know the line about Peter Gabriel albums, that he is so slow to produce them (”I get easily distracted") that vast swathes of time evaporate between releases. Even the 25th anniversary re-release of his hit album So came out a year and a half late.

So you could be excused for thinking that Gabriel's latest project, on which he doesn't appear at all, is the consequence of tardiness on an epic scale.

Well, yes and no. And I'll Scratch Yours is intentionally sans-Gabriel, and is also, inevitably, three years late. But at least it is finally out - this week.

Intended to be a simultaneous release in 2010 with Scratch My Back, Gabriel's album of orchestral cover versions of songs by David Bowie, Paul Simon, David Byrne, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Neil Young, Elbow, Arcade Fire, Randy Newman, The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt and Lou Reed, it would contain the self-same artists covering Gabriel's songs, hence the title, And I'll Scratch Yours (geddit?).

All good plans, and all that, some artists - Reed, Byrne, Elbow and Bon Iver - recorded their contributions without issue, while others needed a push. Young and Radiohead didn't deliver at all (the latter would have covered Gabriel's Wallflower but then appeared to take issue with something Gabriel said in an interview, and that was that). Bowie, for example, was clearly busy on his own thing.

But now, three years on, and with some improvised additions making up the numbers, And I'll Scratch Yours is finally with us and, as so often is the case with tribute albums (which this is not), provides a fascinating reinterpretation of the focal artist's songs.

The innovation of Scratch My Back was that Gabriel selected an eclectic range of songs as much for their songwriting craft as their familiarity, and then applied a very different orchestral arrangement with a strict 'no guitars, no drums' rule. Thus, Bowie's Heroes became a sparse affair, and Paul Simon's The Boy In The Bubble and Arcade Fire's My Body Is A Cage took on decidedly menacing characters.

The reciprocation of And I'll Scratch Yours, however, is not restricted by any particular style guide. All the artists at play on it get to deconstruct Gabriel's famously layered songs, with some fascinating results.

The best example of this is Lou Reed's cut of Solsbury Hill: the original is a song even Gabriel admits has become over familiar, thanks to frequent use on film trailers. Reed - who was the first artist to record for the project - drops the folksy swing of the original song and gives it an obtuse, grungey spikyness through his semi-spoken vocal and an industrial musical arrangement.

Randy Newman
Likewise, but going in the opposite direction, Randy Newman takes the mid-80s synth funk of Big Time and gives it his rich 'Noo Aw-leens' drawl, relishing in the cynicism of Gabriel's lyrics about fame via a deliciously bluesy Louisana swamp of a reworking.

Paul Simon's version of Biko, Gabriel's anthemic tribute to the dead South African human rights activist Stephen Biko, was an easy choice, having previously performed it at a benefit show for the human rights charity Witness. And, just as Gabriel took Simon's own song down a dark, somewhat menacing path, Simon transforms Gabriel's pounding, tribal drum-punctuated song and makes it folksier without losing any of its narrative impact, 36 years after its subject's death in a Port Elizabeth police station.

David Byrne, like Gabriel, another member of rock's Awkward Squad, and a fellow exponent of cross-cultural experiment, turns the formerly terse I Don't Remember into a sprightly - even fun - electronica-infused romp. Others also attach their patented tonality to Gabriel's songs: Bon Iver's version of Come Talk To Me - Gabriel's painful account of the communication breakdown of his failed first marriage - is a perfect blend of Iver's haunting falsetto and a sonic backdrop of acoustic instruments.

There are other tracks on the album, which sit closer to the baseline of Gabriel's original versions. Arcade Fire's Games Without Frontiers, for example, veers little from the 1980 version. However, Elbow - who have long cited Gabriel as an influence - do the same, but end up delivering one of the project's most rewarding performances with their take on Mercy Street, the bittersweet profile of tragic poet Anne Sexton from the So album.

Gabriel's version of Mirrorball highlighted the similarities in timbre between his and Guy Garvey's voices. Elbow's Mercy Street highlights the similarities of their shared application of layered soundscapes (something the band are probably doing right now as they work on new material at Gabriel's Real World Studios).

Big Time Face Time: Peter Gabriel and Elbow's Guy Garvey chat via video

The absence of reciprocation from Bowie, Young and Radiohead is compensated for on And I'll Scratch Yours by contributions from Brian Eno, Canadian folkie Feist, and Joseph Arthur, the much talked-about Gabriel discovery from the US Midwest.

Eno - who, as co-producer of Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums can at least represent The Dame - contributes a futuristic version of Mother Of Violence to the project. Written by Gabriel and his first wife Jill for the second Peter Gabriel album, which had distinctly stripped-away American roots sound to it, the original Mother Of Violence was a beautiful, slow-burning song with a rustic vibe - all acoustic guitars, buzzing bee sound effects, David Letterman band member Sid McGinnis on pedal steel, and the piano work of Bowie and E-Street Band stalwart Roy Bittan. Here, Eno reaches in and grabs the song's theme of people living in urban fear by turning it into an electronic pulse, one which wouldn't be out of place on a Depeche Mode record, and evocative of a dangerous city after dark.

Joseph Arthur has, for some time, been a rising star in Gabriel's orbit. Now 41, Arthur was just 25 years old when Gabriel came across a demo tape of his and signed him to his Real World Records, setting the singer-songwriter off on a refreshingly idiosyncratic recording career.

For And I'll Scratch Yous he repays Gabriel's faith by providing a shimmering, tense interpretation of Shock The Monkey, "one of the first singles I ever bought when I was a kid", Arthur says. "There was a period of my young life where it was the only song I had in my room."

Recorded in one take with just a MIDI guitar, Arthur says it was a poignant project: "It takes me back into my childhood and deals abstractly - at least, to me - with how we evolve through pain. Covering the song and stripping it down to its essence revealed that aspect even more to me."

Rather than peeling back, Stephin Merritt goes for a generational reverse with his version of Not One Of Us, Gabriel's sharply observed attack on racism from his third solo album. Whereas the original sounded unique for 1980, Merritt tries to make his version blend in to the electronic pop scene that was emerging at that time via the likes of Gary Numan and Ultravox.

Perhaps due to his origins in prog rock, or that as a Surrey-born middle class Englishman he just doesn't do that sort of thing, Gabriel had never been seen as being a particularly romantic individual. Quirky, yes, stubbornly arty, certainly, but no pop star. So changed all that, and in particular, Don't Give Up. Conceived as a country song (the original idea was to have Dolly Parton sing on it...), it was a plaintive cry for the unemployed and downtrodden, inspired by the Dust Bowl crisis but supremely pertinent in mid-80s Britain. Canadian singer-songwriter Feist takes the reins of it on And I'll Scratch Yours, reversing the Gabriel-Kate Bush duet order of the original by having Taylor Kirk from fellow Canadians Timber Timbre and a Jim Reeves/Johnny Cash country ring to it, while Feist herself soaks the song in a Lana Del Rey-like noir.

If Don't Give Up was an encouragement to others, much of Us, the album that followed So, focused on Gabriel's crumbling marriage (a sequence not entirely unrelated). Blood Of Eden was one of that album's standout tracks, with a similar formula of Gabriel duetting with a female voice, this time Sinead O'Connor.

It is covered on And I'll Scratch Yours by Regina Spektor, a little known Russian-born, New York-based indie artist who'd provided Gabriel with the song Aprés Moi for his Scratch My Back project. For her reciprocation, Spektor turns the somewhat theraputic warmth of Gabriel's original inside-out to bear her soul and bring the song's real message about vulnerability firmly to the fore.

So the big question about And I'll Scratch Yours is, is it any good? Covers and tributes albums are always well meaning, but not always well executed. Worse still, if they're self-indulgent trawls through the principal artist's personal record collection, the intent can easily get lost in obscurity.

These are usually albums for the fans: Scratch My Back was, I suspect, a project Gabriel undertook as a diversion from the real work of a brand new album. To his credit, it was novel and inventive, and applied enough newness to the songs he was covering to brush over the fact it was, all the same, a covers album.

And I'll Scratch Yours may be more conventional in that it doesn't have a central tonal theme running through it, as its sister album had with Gabriel recording everything with an orchestra. And, yes, it does suffer from the "who, what?"factor - that if you didn't know the original songs being covered, or didn't particularly care for the artist covering it, why would you bother buying the album to begin with.

But I implore you to do so. For 46 years, Peter Gabriel has been one of the most inventive songwriters and performers music has ever produced, one who dares to think, sing, record, perform - even dress -differently from the rest.

And I'll Scratch Yours does that reputation justice, with enough invention and freshness in the application of the artists on it to feel like you've actually got a brand new Peter Gabriel album in your hands. Which, let's face it, doesn't happen very often.

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