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Minimalism makes for an intriguing project

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For his daring all-covers album, Scratch My Back (EMI), Peter Gabriel reworks classic as well as lesser-known works, and the former Genesis frontman does so with good intentions.

The end result is a grand success and noble failure at the same time.

A typical Gabriel solo album features layers of instrumentation, carefully crafted synthesizer treatments and dynamic, almost intrusive percussion that would make the listener think the end of the world was nigh.

On Scratch My Back, though, the songs are stripped bare, then coated in an orchestral bath that is in most cases majestic and in others pedestrian and distant. John Metcalfe, a noted violinist (and ex-member of the punk group Durutti Column), was enlisted to compose and arrange the strings; Bob Ezrin and Tchad Blake were picked to produce and engineer the tracks.

The minimalism puts the spotlight on the lyrics of the songs without the inclusion of guitar and drum arrangements. And this is the fly in the ointment. Enhancing the lyrics is the measure of the song, and a reinterpretation of the song can often infringe on the intent of the composer. But somehow, in most cases, Gabriel makes it work wonderfully considering the limits he has placed on himself.

Gabriel’s interpretation of David Bowie‘s “Heroes” begins quietly, with a fragile vocal comparable to Roger Waters‘ disquieting readings on The Final Cut. One of the signature marks of the original tune is Robert Fripp‘s shimmering guitar, replaced by a wall of vibrating strings and a thumping bass line.

The album’s highlights include a rendition of “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads. Written in 1980, this timeless story is a disquieting portrait of a lonely Middle Eastern boy whose alienation turns him into a suicide bomber. This song could have been written yesterday.

Neil Young‘s “Philadelphia” is one of those rare songs that approach John Lennon‘s “Imagine” in quiet grandeur. For his version of “Philadelphia,” Gabriel infuses the arrangement of strings and tempered horns with a heartrending quality that elevates Young’s dreamy lyrics into the stratosphere.

The cover of Elbow‘s “Mirrorball” might best be described as George Gershwin meets Pink Floyd. One almost imagines Gene Kelly in Paris spinning against a painted plywood cityscape as strings wind a web around a moon painted by Gerald Scarfe. Arcade Fire‘s “My Body is a Cage” (like Gabriel’s own “Here Comes the Flood”) is a mournful tune that starts off slowly and then builds to a crescendo that seeks to spring open the kingdom of heaven.

There are some reservations here. Randy Newman‘s quirky edge is missing from Gabriel’s innocuous rendering of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” After hearing this, one may want to hurry to listen to the original. Radiohead‘s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is not overshadowed here by Gabriel’s raspy vocals; Regina Spektor‘s “Après Moi” is given a lukewarm presentation, as is a take on “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields.

As with many highly touted releases, Scratch My Back is available in a standard 12-track disc and a special two-CD edition with three remixes and one additional cover tune — a spirited handling of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” (The artists represented on Scratch My Back will reciprocate by doing covers of Gabriel’s songs on a forthcoming CD called I’ll Scratch Yours.)

Overall, Scratch My Back is an intriguing project from a consummate performer and perfectionist that will not disappoint Gabriel’s legion of fans who expect nothing less than novelty from him.

— By Donald Gavron