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116 of 133 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scratch Your Head..., March 14, 2010
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This review is from: Scratch My Back (Audio CD)
"Scratch My Back" will doubtlessly go down as one of Peter Gabriel's most contentious albums. Known for thundering drums and uvula exposing vocal explosions, Gabriel evaded all expectations and instead released a mellow, all orchestral album. Reviews seem very mixed and even long time fans are divided on what to think about this puzzling release.

First off, Gabriel has never recorded a cover album. Sometimes these serve as stop gap distractions while performers prepare new batches of original material (naysayers would probably like to think that such is the case here). Many such albums become throwaways. Instead, Gabriel claims that this motley collection of somewhat contemporary tunes represents his most personal endeavor to date. A deeply personal cover album? Gabriel's oeuvre, burgeoning with passionate political and social statements from his own pen, would seem a more likely fountain of personal expression than orchestral covers. In any case, there it is.

Credit definitely goes to Gabriel for trying on new pants, so to say. "Scratch My Back" is completely unlike anything else the man has ever released. Taking his work as a whole, "So" arguably feels closer to "Foxtrot" than to this album. Here the Gabriel "wall of sound" has disappeared. Innovative cracking rhythms give way to flourishing strings. Vocals float in front of often sparse orchestral and piano arrangements. "Here Comes The Flood" and "Wallflower" approach such sparseness, but everything on "Scratch My Back" outdoes even these quiet ballads in this sense. Sparse, in fact, serves as an apt one word description of this album.

Then there's the song selection. Gabriel definitely mined some of the best: Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Radiohead, Randy Newman, David Bowie, etc. None of his interpretations outdo the originals. No one would replace Gabriel's version of "Listening Wind" on their copy of "Remain in Light," for example. But that doesn't really say much. The original versions of these selections are so entrenched in our collective psyches that any cover faces an obstinate wall of inertia and presupposition. But that doesn't mean these are good covers, either.

Some of the interpretations definitely work better than others. "Heroes" will definitely repulse some on a first listen. It will subsequently grow on some and off others. "Flume" soars with everything Gabriel has to offer. "The Power of the Heart" provides a decent alternate take to Lou Reed's love sonnet to his now wife, Laurie Anderson. "My Body is a Cage" drags along like carcasses on a Bruce Nauman carousel, as does "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." The rest of the album remains a little up in the air. Nonetheless, it delivers some genuine moving moments as well as some awkward moments. The bridge in "Philadelphia" contains some inchoate dissonant wailing. It's unpleasant. "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" falls a little flat, sounding less rich than Newman's 1968 arrangement. Also, Gabriel's voice seems a little unsteady and overly self-conscious at times. "Scratch My Back" is far from his best vocal performance. On the plus side, "The Book of Love," a simple ditty, provides a memorable track, though some may wince at the borderline corny lyrics.

Ultimately, "Scratch My Back" plays better in segments than as a whole. The full ride can get a little tiresome given some of the repetitive arrangements (silent and slow, rise to a crescendo, then silence to fade out). Nonetheless, the album does contain some memorable moments, but far fewer than most Gabriel albums offer."Scratch My Back" is not for everyone, not even for all Gabriel fans. It's way off of the radar from his other work, is often slow and brooding, and provides challenging interpretations of some very familiar songs. But many will appreciate the starkness and find themselves spinning this one in certain moods. Maybe time will reveal whether or not this album turns out as Gabriel's only dud or as an unappreciated masterpiece. In the present tense, it has some fans scratching their heads.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 19, 2010 7:00:31 AM PDT
Shanghaied says:
Thanks for the very insightful review. I've been on the fence about picking this up... I suppose I'll retain my perch for a bit longer yet ;)

Posted on Mar 25, 2010 8:56:55 AM PDT
M. Berger says:
Just finished listening to this album for the first time and I have to agree with many of the things you said here. While I remained semi-intrigued throughout the listen, there aren't any songs that I'm dying to listen to again right away. Several of the songs felt a bit repetitive and predictable after a couple minutes and I found myself wanting to skip over tracks even on my first listen. I know that having no drums in the whole album was one of the artist's goals, but there were times when I thought percussion would have filled out some of the tracks to help with that "sparse" sound you described. The smooth and flowing sound is quite beautiful at times, but without some more rhythmic elements thrown in, it grows dull.

I was really excited when I saw that "My Body is a Cage" was one of the covers because I love Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible," but I was actually pretty disappointed in that track. Cruel though it may sound, I'd say the best part of it was the orchestral interlude when Peter Gabriel wasn't singing. Usually I love his voice, but this song just wasn't well-suited for it. It was as if he was trying too hard to sound agonized to the point where it just sounded sloppy.

On the other hand, the vocals were much better on "The Book of Love" in my opinion and I actually found myself singing along at one point. I also enjoyed "Apres Moi" for the most part, perhaps because it felt less repetitive in its arrangement than other tracks. In short, I wanted to agree with you that this album has left me scratching my head. It's not like it was painful to listen to but I wasn't absolutely wowed either. I'll give it another listen or two before I write it off, but as of right now, the album seems "personal" to the point of being hard to relate to...

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 3, 2010 8:24:02 AM PDT
I found that the songs I like best on this album are the ones where I had not heard the original version. "My Body is a Cage" is perhaps my favorite track on the album, but I would say there are 5 or 6 very solid songs, and I am glad I purchased this album.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 29, 2010 11:03:38 PM PDT
I think you should pick it up. I almost gave it a miss because of some reviewers who were perplexed by the whole project. However, I think history will be kind to it. Even if you don't enjoy the whole experience, there are a number of breath taking moments. It is certainly not a traditional covers album. Gabriel goes out of his way to substantially change these songs, and the results are often extraordinary.

Posted on May 12, 2010 8:01:15 PM PDT
valis says:
Thanks for your honest and well written review.

Posted on May 29, 2010 4:42:33 PM PDT
M. Derby says:
If "Here Comes the Flood" is being cited as an example of "sparse" arrangement in a Peter Gabriel original, I'll assume the reference is to the stripped-down version from Robert Fripp's LP Exposure? Gabriel fans are probably more familiar with the version which closes his first solo recording: and though that has some quiet moments, it's not lacking for full-on high decibel slam.

The elements I've found most rewarding in Gabriel's work are his voice, his songwriting, and ability to marshal many collaborators' (musical and technological) prowess into surprising us with sounds we've never heard before. I'm not sure whether I can enjoy a work of his, if it delivers only one of the three. Can't fault his selection of repertoire, but it's likely to leave me wanting to hear the originals instead.

Posted on Jul 14, 2010 4:05:32 PM PDT
Liolanaia says:
I have either never heard these songs or it has been so damn long since I had I forgot how they went so hearing Gabriel's versions was like hearing them for the first time, and from this perspective I actually enjoyed them. Though I don't think I'd listen to the whole album at once, and nor would I call it anywhere near his best work. It is very interesting and is a departure for him musically, but I definitely wouldn't want him to do another record like this one, and I doubt he will. I can understand why Radiohead pulled out of the project after hearing his version of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", but to be honest, I almost liked it better than the Radiohead one, the only thing I didn't care a lot for was Gabriel's singing, but I really liked the arrangement. But, we'll see how kind time is to this one I see. :)

God Bless ~Amy

Posted on May 11, 2012 10:59:00 AM PDT
Stephen Mann says:
Interesting review, but I can't agree with some of the "givens".

I've found that cover versions of songs I've known and loved are often far superior to the original. I can cite Joe Cocker's "First We Take Manhattan" which knocks the socks off the Cohen original and his "Love Made a Promise" which shocked me, so well did he reinterpret the Brady original by making subtle changes. Almost any cover of "Hallelujia" is beter than the Cohen original IMO and Fairport Convention's "Hiring Fair" is far superior to the brilliant McTell original.

I found the covers on SMB to be universally "meh" in feel, with the exception of Heroes which is just beyond horrible.

It ain't the sparse arrangement either. O' Conner blows me away time and again with her super-sparse cover of "It's no Sacrifice", which is so far ahead of the original piece in every way that I cannot bear to listen to it any more - it reflects badly on the cover!

There just doesn't seem to be any energy here. "Heroes" is about anger and love, but you wouldn't know it from the arrangement on this album.

Maybe I just don't get it, but I certainly don't like it.

Posted on Jan 8, 2014 3:39:06 PM PST
dj says:
Great review! I appreciate your objectivity. I noticed that PG is releasing a companion disc called "And I'll Scratch Yours." I wonder if it will be more of the same.
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