Scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.
December 29, 2013 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Back at the beginning of 2010, Peter Gabriel released Scratch My Back, an album of covers of various artists. He had hoped those same artists would, in turn, cover songs he had written. Well, it didn't all come together as smoothly as he had planned, and not all the artists participated, but he's finally released And I'll Scratch Yours. NPR has a limited time preview of both albums running right now.

Scratch My Back:
Heroes (David Bowie)
The Boy In The Bubble (Paul Simon)
Mirrorball (Elbow)
Flume (Bon Iver)
Listening Wind (Talking Heads)
The Power Of The Heart (Lou Reed)
My Body Is A Cage (Arcade Fire)
The Book Of Love (The Magnetic Fields)
I Think It's Going To Rain Today (Randy Newman)
Après moi (Regina Spektor)
Philedelphia (Neil Young)
Street Spirit (Fade Out) (Radiohead)

And I'll Scratch Yours:
I Don't Remember (David Byrne)
Come Talk To Me (Bon Iver)
Blood Of Eden (Regina Spektor)
Not One Of Us (Stephin Merritt)
Shock The Monkey (Joseph Arthur)
Big Time (Randy Newman)
Games Without Frontiers (Arcade Fire)
Mercy Street (Elbow)
Mother Of Violence (Brian Eno)
Don't Give Up (Feist feat Timber Timbre)
Solsbury Hill (Lou Reed) [in one of his last recordings]
Biko (Paul Simon)
posted by hippybear (40 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder why Radiohead packed a sad at the Street Spirit cover... I think it's lovely, if sort of rough.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:21 PM on December 29, 2013

The idea of Lou Reed covering Solsbury Hill made my night.
The reality of Lou Reed covering Solsbury Hill did not make my night.

The two standouts for me: Boy in the Bubble and Don't Give Up.

The rest are either not transformed enough to be true reinterpretations or not executed well enough. Justin Vernon does alright, but still compared to Boy in the Bubble, which is a daringly gloomy radical transformation, and Don't Give Up, which is a gender flipped modernization, nothing else seems truly special.

I like Book of Love, but it's almost weddingish in this incarnation, it loses it's dry beauty.

Oh shit. Hi primalux. Didn't realize that was you up there.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 11:37 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

The reality of Lou Reed covering Solsbury Hill did not make my night.

sadly true. I sincerely hope this was not Lou's final recording and thought as much when I heard he died, having heard his Solsbury Hill maybe a day or two earlier.
posted by philip-random at 11:44 PM on December 29, 2013

The rest are either not transformed enough to be true reinterpretations or not executed well enough.

Well, I loved Gabriel's version of "My Body is a Cage."
posted by Decani at 12:49 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I could hear sparks of what I love of Lou Reed's music in that song.
posted by Packed Lunch at 1:57 AM on December 30, 2013

sadly true. I sincerely hope this was not Lou's final recording and thought as much when I heard he died, having heard his Solsbury Hill maybe a day or two earlier.

It's a tad more consoling than thinking that LULU was his last recordings.
posted by MrChowWow at 1:59 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's too bad Peter Gabriel has run out of ideas. He needs to join someone else's band.
posted by pracowity at 2:58 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not a huge Arcade Fire fan, but their cover of GWF is pretty good.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:04 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to think it was funny to "Lou Reedify" songs. Just yesterday I was annoying my family by scraping out "Wimoweh" on a ukulele and merely talking out the yelps-- imagine "Last Great American Whale" translated into Wookiee. I should point out that this was fairly dangerous because my wife was driving at the time.

Anyway, after hearing that cover of "Solsbury Hill," I no longer think that sort of thing is funny and would like to apologize to anyone who has heard me do it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:10 AM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

You guys have heard Lou Reed before, right? He's supposed to sound like this.

If this is the last thing he ever recorded, it'll do fine.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:47 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

So, no Belafonte then.
posted by Houstonian at 3:56 AM on December 30, 2013

For what it's worth, the iTunes store has all 24 tracks, now. Confusing because the NPR piece says the second half of the album is supposed to be out January 7.
posted by emelenjr at 6:30 AM on December 30, 2013

Peter Gabriel is a treasure and it'd be an honor to be asked to cover one of his songs. That said, I have an obstinant streak and I can relate to artists who weren't interested in being told what they should record.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:37 AM on December 30, 2013

Hey, someone should do a FPP on "Standards" (i.e. Jazz Standards), how a song becomes one, and why there aren't a set in "rock"
posted by DigDoug at 6:43 AM on December 30, 2013

Peter Gabriel and Elbow covering each other is some sort of musical Mobius strip.
posted by Dr-Baa at 6:46 AM on December 30, 2013

DigDoug, your suggestion brings to mind a great episode of 99 Percent Invisible, Frozen Music.
posted by emelenjr at 6:47 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a tough time with modern Peter Gabriel. It's not so much his age, and the way his vocal range has roughened and narrowed over the decades; you can't look at someone you idolized in the 80s and 90s and expect them to have stood still. It's more that his creative range has narrowed, too. The songs he's covering may be ones he enjoys, may be meaningful to him...but the album itself sounds too much like an old man puttering around in the same old garden. What has he brought to the songs, other than the fact that it's him singing along to them?

But I have a similar complaint about the "And I'll Scratch Yours" album. Here you have this artist you've always thought of as heavily influential...but that influence isn't felt in the majority of these songs, which are, for the most part, being played as if the artist had no relationship to the song at all. The biggest culprit--the most disappointing--to me was Joseph Arthur. Yes, he owes a great deal to Gabriel, but did his cover have to be so deadly proper and worshipful? Arthur has this great sense of humor, and an ability to deeply, deeply layer his music so that you are getting lost in it...and instead of those powers being on display, we get an imitation of Gabriel, rather than a reinterpretation. Merritt's cover of "Not One of Us" gets the humor but is too sarcastic, I think (am I hearing a Freaks reference in the pitch-shifting of the chorus?).

Interestingly, two of the covers--"Blood of Eden" and "Don't Give Up"--make me think that the original songs were maybe weaker than I thought, propped up more by the power of their original collaborators than of the songs themselves. Played straight, with people doing an honest job on the vocals, they feel flat and strange.

(I leave out Randy Newman entirely; I have come to terms with the fact that I hate his style, that every song he touches sounds like the intro music to a hip 70s sitcom where young adults find themselves adjusting to life in the big city, and I clench my teeth until it's over, and we all survive.)

I don't mean to say none of it was enjoyable! "I Don't Remember" was fun and light, "Come Talk to Me" was very pretty, "Biko" was pretty much exactly what I expected (which was a good thing).

Of course, while I know that the idea was that Gabriel would cover a band, and then the band would cover one of his songs, I think they made a mis-step in choosing Elbow's version of "Mercy Street." It wasn't bad at all, but the best cover thus far of the song is Fever Ray's, which I think gets the atmosphere exactly right, while amplifying the hidden pop energy of the original.
posted by mittens at 6:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

He should have asked Robert Pollard. Bob could have cut two Gabriel covers and an original concept album about the members of Genesis living together on an asteroid before breakfast.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:01 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'd heard a couple samples from some of these before and was....actually less than impressed. It feels like Peter's taken this very slow and maudlin turn with a lot of things lately, and a lot of his covers felt like that's what they were doing - and a lot of the return covers of his songs sounded similar to that as well. ....I am kind of overprotective of Peter's songs, true, but a lot of the covers I'd heard seemed to strip out exactly what I liked about them in the first place - all the rich tapestries of different music, layers of textures from all over the globe.

Which is why I did not expect to like Bon Iver's cover of "Come Talk To Me". The original is all Gabriel Power Chords and world music rhythms (Scottish bagpipes, Armenian woodwinds, and Sinead O'Connor singing backup all on the same song? Sure, why not?). And Bon Iver managed to surprise me with it ("betcha didn't think folk banjo would work here either, didja? But why wouldn't it?")

Incidentally, another group was doing its own covers project a couple years back and asked Peter to take part - I think the premise was that they invited a few artists to do a spontaneous cover of someone else as a one-off, something simple they could put on YouTube. And Peter covered Tom Waits. It's a pretty faithful cover of "In The Neighborhood," but it has made me think about what may have happened if he'd asked Tom to join in on this project of his. ....Imagine a Tom Waits cover of anything of his.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many years back, Storyville covered Mercy Street quite effectively.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:49 AM on December 30, 2013

I know it's not exactly on-topic for a covers thread, but I will post it anyway: here is a B-side of Gabriel's I've always loved, "Don't Break This Rhythm", off the Sledgehammer single.
posted by mittens at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2013

For what it's worth, the iTunes store has all 24 tracks, now. Confusing because the NPR piece says the second half of the album is supposed to be out January 7.

It's also confusing because Pitchfork reviewed I'll Scratch Yours on September 24, which is also the release date for the album given in the wikipedia article in the FPP.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:24 AM on December 30, 2013

I really like most of these, but Peter Gabriel without Manu Katche is like cereal without milk; okay, but not wholly satisfying.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:32 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm very fond of Gabriel's cover of My Body Is a Cage. While the original felt like it was made for being played in an old church on a ramshackle organ, Gabriel's version is meant for a cathedral, all cinematic and sweeping and almost holy. And it's a song that sounds rather different when it's sung by an older man, more like it's a lament for the infirmities of age and mortality.
posted by yasaman at 8:38 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

He should have asked Robert Pollard.

FWIW the GBV tribute album is pretty cool... I'd love to see the reverse tribute album, 'cuz their cover of Baba O'Riley is pretty boss live.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:41 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Getting Talking Heads to respond - as opposed to David Byrne - was obviously never going to happen.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:48 AM on December 30, 2013

For Mr. Gabriel's next experiment, he should do a covers album entirely made up of post-Gabriel Genesis songs and Phil Collins solo tunes. I'm deadly serious.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:25 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

An ambitious project like that would be a nightmare to choreograph and put together. I admire the fact Gabriel even tried...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:47 AM on December 30, 2013

I'm a bit disappointed in Regina Spektor's "Blood of Eden." In covering another's song, you have to make the choice between trying to offer a faithful rendition (like a tribute band kind of thing) or making that song, however briefly, your own. Spektor did neither. She played this one so straight it hurt. Aside from her diction and some pretty but faint harmonies, this might as well have been recorded from karaoke. As much as I love this song, and the various duets with PG and the various covers (Kate Bush, Sinead, etc), I think this was a poor choice for Spektor.

And say what you will about Randy Newman, DirtlyOldTown, but he owned Big Time. It was unmistakably Randy Newman. Likewise The Arcade Fire; I think they did a great job.
posted by bluejayway at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2013

I love me some Gabriel, but so many of his early records are absolutely dependent on that PPG sound (much like Kate Bush's), and it's really hard to hear them without it.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:13 AM on December 30, 2013

The Lou Reed cover is awesome. Everything I like about late Lou Reed. Sounds a lot like his cover of This Magic Moment on the Lost Highway soundtrack. Just broken down slurred guitars that manage to rise out of the muck. A singer completely removed from the lyrics. Probably cause he's reading them but whatever. It reminds me of the few tracks I liked on Ecstasy and the murky mix of Rock and Roll Heart.

Okay I'll go listen to the rest. Fun post!
posted by kittensofthenight at 11:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love Brian Eno. And I think 2 is the best PG record. Or at least it's the only one I like. But Brian's version of Mother of Violence, despite sounding conceptually good in my head is in reality lazily awful in the extreme. Boo.
posted by peterkins at 12:00 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

That was mittens who wasn't a fan of Randy Newman, bluejayway. I dig him quite a bit.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:57 PM on December 30, 2013

Particular standouts for me: "Mirrorball", "The Power of the Heart", "My Body Is A Cage", "The Book of Love". "The Book of Love" breaks the general pattern of covers of songs I know less well appealing to me more than covers of songs I'm familiar with (a pattern that extends beyond this particular project). But then, I don't think I've ever heard a cover of "The Book of Love" that I haven't liked. It's such a well-constructed song.

I like the sinister mood of "Apres Moi" but Spektor's phrasing is so distinctive that I couldn't get it out of my head and Gabriel's just sounded "wrong". I think it was smart to switch the dramatic emphasis from the vocal to the instrumentation, given that Gabriel doesn't have the flexibility he used to, but I do wonder what he would've done with this song 20 years ago.

I like what Randy Newman did with "Big Time" a lot, and he has a tendency to just drive me up a wall (his songs are much easier for me to appreciate when other people are covering them), so that's saying quite a bit. I was a bit underwhelmed by And I'll Scratch Yours, on the whole, though I liked the gender flip on "Don't Give Up" and Lou Reed won me over to his "Solesbury Hill" by the end.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:15 PM on December 30, 2013

OK, so the Lou Reed cover is three years old; has anyone used it in a movie trailer yet?

I am sort of smacking myself for not realizing that Scratch My Back was leading to this but while I liked several tracks ("Apres Moi", mostly) it didn't make enough of an impression for me to notice the singles released either.

From And I'll Scratch Yours I love the Regina Spektor and Elbow versions and am surprised at how much I've liked the tracks from Bon Iver, Randy Newman and Paul Simon.
posted by mountmccabe at 4:59 PM on December 30, 2013

I listened to both of these last night. You people who don't like Lou Reed's "Solsbury Hill" are nuts.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:58 AM on December 31, 2013

giving it a fresh listen right now ... and I stand by my earlier estimation. It sounds to me like he's reading the lyrics from a sheet over mostly random background noise. The standalone vocal track might have some promise, but as a whole, it just feels tossed off, and completely misses the point of the original.

On the other hand, I do appreciate this Current 93 take on Sounds of Silence + Scarborough Fair.
posted by philip-random at 11:42 AM on December 31, 2013

Listening to the last of I'll Scratch Yours now... and it confirms for me: Peter Gabriel is a damned enigma. Love him- saw him a couple of times ca. '86, and he was brilliant, I'm a fan of pretty much all of the albums... but there's just something slippery about all of it. I think it has something to do with how he writes, or puts songs together... like, often you can tell, with at least rock/blues/stuff, whether something was composed on guitar or piano. Whether it has chord structure, and how the melodic through-lines work. With Gabriel's stuff, I find it way more elusive, and I feel like other people do too.

Which is why. I think, he's so hard to cover. His songs hang together in rather peculiar ways sometimes, so either you go straight-cover, and I'm left just missing Gabriel's voice... or you try to do something different, but that's where the slipperiness comes in. You start subbing out elements of the original, and pretty soon, the song's all gone.

When I read about this project, and how it turned out, I was kinda mad at Neil Young and David Bowie, but then I started thinking, at least w/ Neil, what the hell is there in Gabriel that would even work for him? It'd be like a barbecue chef trying to do molecular gastronomy. So I guess I don't blame him.

I thought the standout cut on Scratch My Back was The LIstening Wind- Talking Heads are another highly influential/lightly covered band, for what I feel are similar reasons, so it made sense. The Byrne track here though doesn't do much for me, oh well. Thanks for the links though, I'd been wondering how this project went.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:23 PM on December 31, 2013

Also, I have no idea how TV on the Radio weren't included in any of this, they seem like a no-brainer, to me.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:27 PM on December 31, 2013

Not wanting to spoil the party, but I didn't like most of them. The Man himself does it best.
posted by nostrada at 4:56 PM on December 31, 2013

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