Album Review: Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

by Gordon Elgart on January 26, 2010

Peter Gabriel’s new covers album Scratch My Back is the beginning of a “song exchange” project. This means that every artist covered on this album is being asked to cover one of Peter Gabriel’s songs in exchange. This collection will then be released under the title …And I’ll Scratch Yours. That’s the intention. Whether or not the second part ends up happening seems to be up in the air so far, but Stephin Merrit has already recorded “Not One of Us” as a b-side to Peter Gabriel’s Magnetic Fields cover,”Book of Love,” so the project has begun.

To review part one of this project, I’ve gone song-by-song, admitting how well I know the original, how I feel the cover and its new arrangement works, and for fun, I pick which song from Peter Gabriel’s catalog I’d like the covered artists to select.

Overall, you should know that part of this project was there would be no drums or guitars on this record. All you get is voices, strings, horns and piano. It’s lovely. Overall, I’m happy with the album, but I’m only going to back to specific tracks on it. When you read the track-by-track reviews, you’ll surely be able to figure out which ones those are.

“Heroes” by David Bowie

Familiarity: Know the song well, been a favorite of mine for years.

The original Bowie version is inspiring from the get go, whereas Peter Gabriel begins his version as if he’s just past the climactic battle scene in some post-apocalyptic movie, and he’s singing to a dead friend. It’s dramatic and amazing. I felt like I was gonna cry by the end.

David Bowie should cover: “Big Time” is remniscient of the Let’s Dance album and all sorts of cool vocal moments that would be perfect for Bowie.

“Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon

Familiarity: First song off of Graceland? Heard it hundreds of times.

Again, Peter Gabriel picks the sadness out of the song and brings it to the forefront. While the bouncy beats of the Graceland album hide the somber center of this tune, you’ll find none of that bounce here, only weepy piano and strings. When he repeats “Don’t cry, baby don’t cry,” all I want to do is cry.

Paul Simon should cover: It’s already been announced that he intends to cover “Biko,” the classic protest song from Peter Gabriel’s third self-titled album.

“Mirrorball” by Elbow

Familiarity: Elbow is my favorite band. This song is great.

Guy Garvey is my all-time favorite singer, and the person to which he’s most often compared is Peter Gabriel, so it’s interesting to hear Peter Gabriel sing this melody. I think that 20-years-ago Gabriel may have been up to the task, but this song doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as the Elbow original. The string arrangement here is interesting: I hated it at first, but with time, I’m growing to enjoy it.

Elbow should cover: I would love to see them tackle “Here Comes the Flood,” the closing track from his debut solo album. It’s the kind of vocal that Guy Garvey could knock out of the park.

“Flume” by Bon Iver

Familiarity: I’ve listened to the album a number of times, but couldn’t sing this one if you asked me.

This one comes across as a sweet little song here. Peter Gabriel really sells it here, and it’s almost as if it’s his “she” that’s “the moon” by the end of the song. The rising horns add an urgency to the arrangement that was missing from the original in some ways. I’d love to hear Justin Vernon sing the song over this arrangement.

Bon Iver should cover: Why not “Digging in the Dirt?” It’s not like he has an aversion to songs about crumbled relationships.

“Listening Wind” to Talking Heads

Familiarity: Love the Talking Heads, but have never been much of a fan of this track.

The original comes from late on the Remain In Light album, and focuses much more on atmospheric beats than on melody. Peter Gabriel definitely focuses on the melody of the song, both in his vocals and in the aggressively building strings that accompany him. Then, both Gabriel and the strings work together to keep the rhythmic feel of the original. It really pulls the song out of the song, and is the first arrangement on this album that I like significantly better than the original.

Talking Heads should cover: Well, I don’t know how he’s gonna get them to cover anything, but let’s say my dreams come true and there’s a reunion, then they absolutely need to do “Sledgehammer.”

“The Power of the Heart” by Lou Reed

Familiarity: Know Lou Reed, but not very well at all, so this song is new to me.

Hearing this song with my preconceived notions of what Lou Reed is “supposed” to sound like surprised me. It’s a beautiful love song filled with memorable poetic lyrics. I’ve always associated him with silly or sarcastic lyrics, and now I feel like a fool. I have a new appreciation for Lou Reed, which is the whole point of a covers album.

Lou Reed should cover: “Red Rain” would take on a very different tone with Lou’s New York approach to it. I’m guessing it becomes about 350% more somber.

“My Body Is a Cage” by Arcade Fire

Familiarity: I’m an unabashed Arcade Fire fan, so I know it well.

Peter Gabriel has taken this song, made it his own, and now has the essential version of it. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly appreciate the original now. There’s drama in the pauses, the choir, and the orchestra. There’s pain in his voice, one that seems drawn from years of experience, that Win hasn’t yet been able to find in his. And Gabriel’s nearly inaudible growling throughout had me grinning from ear to ear.

Arcade Fire should cover: “Games Without Frontiers” has a woman singing in French, whistling, and lots of opportunity for wandering percussion. It’s perfect.

“The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields

Familiarity: One of my top 10 favorite love songs off of 69 Love Songs.

The weightiness of the arrangement style of this record doesn’t serve the sweet joy of “The Book of Love” all that well. I think a bouncier feel would have been more appropriate. A lot of the life of the original seems to be buried here. I think this is my least favorite interpretation on the record.

Magnetic Fields should cover: Stephin Merritt has already recorded “Not One of Us.” I may have chosen the odd “Moribund the Burgermeister” for them; I think it would have sounded sweet on mandolin.

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by Randy Newman

Familiarity: First time hearing this song.

I think Peter Gabriel is trying to “do” Randy Newman here, with a sparse piano arrangement, and even a bit of an accent thrown in. Because of this, it’s almost pointless to have done this song at all. I don’t see that Gabriel brings anything to the table here. It’s possible he just really likes Randy Newman, and wanted to include him. I have no problem with that, but this neither adds to nor subtracts from the Randy Newman experience.

Randy Newman should cover: “Father Son” is practically made to be used as the sad song in the middle of a Pixar movie, so Randy should make it happen.

“Apres Moi” by Regina Spektor

Familiarity: Not a fan of Regina’s, but know many people who are, so I’ve heard this song a couple of times before.

This song sounds really cool here, with dancing violins leading to short bursts of dramatic verses. Replacing the hiccups and hops of Spektor’s original vocals with Gabriel’s more direct vocal adds a lot more dramatic tension to the song. The original’s arrangement is already acceptably theatrical, but Gabriel’s is able to match it; plus, he’s just a flat-out better singer, and totally nails this one. Purists may not like the altered ending, so tread carefully if that might be you in this situation.

Regina Spektor should cover: “Intruder” would give her a chance to use her crazy vocal stylings to make the titular chracter of this song an oddly sexy insane criminal. It would be wonderful.

“Philadelphia” by Neil Young

Familiarity: This one got some play back in the early 90s, but I needed a refresher.

I’ve never thought of Neil Young as the greatest singer in the history of the world, but he’s been known to write some killer melodies. While this isn’t one of his utter classics, it must be tough to sing because Gabriel seems out of his element here. He sounds just wrong singing this one. I’m not sure why he chose it when there’s hundreds of Neil Young songs he could have chosen that would have been a better fit for his voice.

Neil Young should cover: I want Neil to get the loudness going and do “Shock the Monkey” as a feedback infused Crazy Horse rock number.

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead

Familiarity: This is one of the songs I’d put on a Best of Radiohead mix, probably as the closer.

Covering Radiohead is a thankless task. This is because we Radiohead fans are jerks who use the Internet a lot and will have our pitchforks out, ready to go after a bad cover version. But Peter Gabriel is a veteran musician, near 60, and doesn’t give a crap. Good for him, because I’m not thinking the Radiohead fans are gonna love this one. His artistic choice is to make the song seem harder to sing than it actually is, like he’s actually fading out, and might not make it. It’s a risky choice, and doesn’t work all that well for me.

Radiohead should cover: I’m going to pick “Rhythm of the Heat” because it’s weird and filled with moments of inspired percussive lunacy, but just hearing Radiohead cover Peter Gabriel at all would be happiness for me.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Dakin January 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I like the layout of this review… Well done, but seriously, David Bowie doing Big Time? How awful would that be?? How about In Your Eyes? That would be beautiful with Bowie’s deeper register.

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Gordon Elgart January 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I think Bowie doing In Your Eyes would sound so incredibly cheesy! At least if he did “Big Time,” it would be lots of fun. Just thinking about Bowie singing “I’m on my way I’m making it” fills me with joy.

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Dakin January 26, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Oh, and Radiohead are already doing Wallflower.

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Gordon Elgart January 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Different song, same album. So close!

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Ben January 26, 2010 at 6:41 pm

What a cool project, can’t wait to hear it. Totally agree with your first three recommendations. Garvey on HCTF would be really awesome.

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Daniel January 27, 2010 at 10:27 am

I’ve heard most of it, but not all, and this is an apt review.

The only misstep on this album was covering Randy Newman. Sorry, it’s not that interesting a song. It reminds me of Gabriel’s more pedestrian work. And “book of love” – ah, for those who like their PG happy, it’s fine. But it’s the darker stuff that makes my day.

There are some home runs here. My mouth dropped open – literally – at Gabriel’s cover of “apres moi.” A stunner. It reminds me of the feeling when I finally “got” his work on “Passion.” Wow.
The same for “my body is a cage.” Just wow.

I haven’t heard all of “mirrorball,” and “flume,” and but what each of these songs brings is the classic Gabriel theme of hope against alienation. I’m less enthused by what I’ve heard of “philadelphia” and “boy in the bubble.” The talking heads cover is great, tho, and I agree it surpasses the original.

The other track worth mentioning is Radiohead’s street spirit. It reminds me, coincidentally, of my feelings toward “Wallflower” at first listen: “eh.” It is not as accessible as Radiohead’s original, but like a lot of difficult PG material, it gets better and better with each turn. And as Wallflower is now one of my all-time PG songs, i suspect this one will grow on me.

Odd as it is to say, this is a tremendously original album. To take modern classics, imbue them with, of all things, string arrangements, and still come out with something that is edgy and provocative, is quite an accomplishment.

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