Album Review: Scratch My Back

I promised to debut a new feature here today, and here it is…the album review. You can find reviews of music practically anywhere…and I can’t say for sure that mine will be radically different. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t try. 🙂 First off, I’ll probably end up mostly reviewing albums & songs I love (after all, why would I want to give an album I hate a post of its own?), unless I have something special to say about a disappointing recording of some sort. Second, some new releases  might pop up now and then, but for the most part it’ll be stuff that I’ve come to know and love (or loathe). Third, there will be no star ratings or letter grades. I’ve never been that great at physically rating music (I usually just slap 5 stars on the stuff I put on my iPod), and I’ve noticed that sometimes reviews can be more effective without an “A-” or “3/4 stars” or something. (Example: The BBC’s absolutely outstanding music reviews, the link to which you can find in my blogroll.) And finally, I want to hear your opinion. Do you violently disagree with me? Did you like a sentence I wrote? Do you have another take? Do you have an entire review of the album you’d like to give? I’d love to hear your viewpoints on whatever albums I review, so by all means fill up the comments with your thoughts. And without any further ado, Harmony Avenue’s inaugural album review.

Scratch My Back Cover

Album Name: Scratch My Back

Album Artist: Peter Gabriel

Released: February-March 2010

There are few things more prevalent in the music world than a cover. Who doesn’t love the chance to take on someone else’s song? There have certainly been covers albums that have been lazy (I won’t name names…), and those that have been incredibly ambitious, and there have been even more of them in between, but even among a great deal of varied company, Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch My Back” stands virtually alone. Rather than taking on treasured jazz standards, classic rock, or classical repertoire, Gabriel has chosen to cover songs largely from the past decade. With a full orchestra (minus drums). It seems crazy, cerebral, indulgent on paper to have the former lead singer of Genesis singing the likes of Arcade Fire, Elbow, and Regina Spektor with a bunch of strings and brass…and when you think about it, it kind of is. But it works. In fact, it does more than work…it breathes. It lives. In short…it’s incredible.

There are two clear elements that elevate “Scratch My Back” to be worthy of this kind of acclaim–the absolutely gorgeous arrangements, and Gabriel’s own emotional, vocal commitment to the songs. John Metcalfe’s orchestrations move and flow with the different songs, and at many instances throughout the album, they’re simply and utterly stunning. “Mirrorball” builds from a soft, subtle dissonance into an astounding, rousing climax. “My Body Is A Cage” lets all hell loose, then calms down into a beautiful fade-out with a heavenly chorus of voices. “Flume” quietly smolders and burns with beautifully restrained energy. And so it goes throughout the disc…the textures, the instrumentation, everything seems to come together to perfectly complement Peter Gabriel’s vocals. It isn’t just background on this album, it’s an equal partner in the musical journey.

As for the vocals…Peter Gabriel can still wail and shout and cry out. His voice is older, but it’s still remarkably expressive, and he finds just the right balance between gravitas and heart. They’re breathtaking, heartbreaking, full of release, and world-weary…usually all in the same song. His emotional commitment lifts “Scratch My Back” from the level of ‘nice idea’ to ‘brilliantly executed labor of love.’ He puts his heart and soul into these songs, and despite the fact that many of them are less than a decade old, his careful, elegant delivery makes them feel like old friends.

Only two songs fall a bit flat here…in a rare misstep, nothing new is really added to “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” (it’s an absolutely beautiful song, but has been covered more originally and effectively by many other artists), and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” gets a little bit too bogged down in trying to create its own atmosphere. Otherwise, this is an outstanding record…one that offers new and exciting aural pathways on each listen, one that both uplifts and acts as a sort of catharsis, and above all, is some dang great music. It takes a bit to get used to, and it doesn’t give away everything on the first listen…but over time, the listener will discover that it’s an amazing treasure of music, and arguably one of the most engaging, rich cover albums that’s ever been recorded.

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