Peter Gabriel – New Blood

Peter Gabriel - New BloodPicking up conceptually where the too-tame orchrstral cover album Scratch My Back left off, Peter Gabriel’s follow-up is another orchestral cover album, this time drawing from Gabriel’s own back catalog. I was so unimpressed with Scratch My Back that I elected not to review it here (in a nutshell: Gabriel’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Boy In Then Bubble” was the only track I bother to revisit since the first listen), so the thought of Gabriel giving his own material the same treatment didn’t excite me: would he pick the right songs? Would he saddle them with uninspired, Scratch My Back-style arrangements?

And yet some of Gabriel’s music just oozes widescreen majesty. Surely translation into a symphonic idiom could only expand on that… right?

Well… yes and no. Gabriel is working with the same arranger with whom he collaborated on Scratch My Back here, so it’s hit or miss. “Rhythm Of The Heat” is pretty typical of the album as a whole”: for the most part it’s a competent enough translation of the original version of the song, but adds nothing new except a swap-out of rock instruments for orchestral instruments. It’s unadventurous. That description applies to many of the album’s covers. Very few songs break the mold and make me go “wow” – “Intruder” is a good example of this, taking the (already disturbing) original song and reshaping it into an unnerving piece of horror movie music – but most fall into the spineless category. Worse yet, Gabriel’s voice isn’t capable of the acrobatics he could pull off in his younger years, stripping even more of the “oomph” from the songs as he tones the vocals down along with the instruments.

If you’re detecting a recurring theme here, aside from “this could have been so much better,” you’re not imagining things. Peter Gabriel is a maker of mind-expanding, widescreen music. It’s not for nothing that he’s scored movies before (Birdy, The Last Temptation Of Christ), and it’s not for nothing that he was selected to assemble the world-music-rock-opera for London’s Millennium Dome (OVO). And yet New Blood seems to sap the blood from the same songs that made me a Peter Gabriel fan in the first place.

Maybe what this album needed was some TLC from someone who actually does soundtracks, rather than the same numbingly dull approach as Scratch My Back. Bear McCreary of Battlestar Galactica soundtrack fame, who is credited by a lot of that show’s fans for exposing them to new and different styles of music, would have knocked this out of the park and (excuse the pun) straight into orbit, fusing orchestral and ethnic music with ease.

2 out of 4I hope Peter Gabriel resumes his more traditional style of music for whatever he releases next. The songs selected for New Blood were enthralling in their original versions because they were so unconventional. New Blood squandered the opportunity to expand on those songs by make them not just convention, but watered-down shadows of their former selves.

Order this CD

    Disc One – Vocals

  1. The Rhythm Of The Heat (5:41)
  2. Downside Up (3:52)
  3. San Jacinto (6:58)
  4. Intruder (5:07)
  5. Wallflower (6:25)
  6. In Your Eyes (7:13)
  7. Mercy Street (5:59)
  8. Red Rain (5:15)
  9. Darkness (6:10)
  10. Don’t Give Up (6:40)
  11. Digging In The Dirt (4:57)
  12. The Nest That Sailed The Sky (3:54)
  13. A Quiet Moment (4:48)
  14. Solsbury Hill (4:35)
    Disc Two – Instrumentals

  1. The Rhythm Of The Heat (instrumental) (5:41)
  2. Downside Up (instrumental) (3:52)
  3. San Jacinto (instrumental) (7:12)
  4. Intruder (instrumental) (5:06)
  5. Wallflower (instrumental) (6:24)
  6. In Your Eyes (instrumental) (7:13)
  7. Mercy Street (instrumental) (6:00)
  8. Red Rain (instrumental) (5:15)
  9. Darkness (instrumental) (6:10)
  10. Don’t Give Up (instrumental) (6:40)
  11. Digging In The Dirt (instrumental) (4:58)
  12. The Nest That Sailed The Sky (instrumental) (3:54)
  13. The Blood Of Eden (instrumental) (6:05)

Released by: RealWorld
Release date: 2011
Disc one total running time: 77:34
Disc two total running time: 74:30

Peter Gabriel – Big Blue Ball

Culled from the open recording days held at Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Studios in the early to mid 1990s, Big Blue Ball isn’t really necessarily a Peter Gabriel album. Considering how frustrated some of his fans are with the lengthy wait between albums (and I’ll admit that I probably belong in that impatient category), Big Blue Ball may, as such, come off as a disappointment to some listeners. Gabriel doesn’t even perform on every track, even as an instrumentalist – in fact, over 50% of the album is Gabriel-free. So what’s in it for you, the listener? Why bother with Big Blue Ball?

Because even if he doesn’t play on a given track, there’s sort of an unspoken, unwritten stamp of approval that goes with the fact that Gabriel let these folks into the studio, period. Now, I will admit to a certain bias here: the material on which Gabriel does play/sing is the best stuff on Big Blue Ball by a long shot. But this doesn’t make the seven out of eleven songs where he doesn’t appear instant skip material. Gabriel’s penchant for encouraging ethnic fusion artists and trying to break various styles of world music out into wide exposure means that there’s actually more cohesion among the tracks than you might think.

And some of the artists heard here are legends in their own parts of the world. One can hear, in the hypnotically relaxing “Altus Silva”, the genesis of a sound that some of its musicians would later make their own under the name of Afro-Celt Sound System. I was pleasantly surprised to see former World Party one-man-band Karl Wallinger all over this album. Long, long ago, I remember reading in Rolling Stone that Tim Finn – circa his “ALT” collaboration with Liam O’Maonlai and Andy White – had participated in some sessions with Gabriel, and when Tim’s name didn’t surface anywhere on Up, I guessed that whatever he had worked on had been buried. But one of those recordings is the first track on here, and it’s a winner. Other standouts – with out without Gabriel – include, at long last, a definitive (and somewhat tweaked) release of the single “Burn You Up, Burn You Down” (which dates back to Up‘s release and really should have not only been on that album, but should’ve also been its lead single), as well as a song called “Exit Through You” whose percussion toward the end completely fascinates me. “Forest” and “Habibe” are engrossing world music tracks. In fact, the only track I consistently skip is “Jijy” – there’s nothing wrong with the song, but I have to be in a certain mood for rap, let alone rap in another language. But it’s still pretty catchy.

3 out of 4So while some fans expecting a full-on Gabriel album might be disappointed, there’s plenty of music to enjoy on Big Blue Ball. I get cranky about the huge gaps between albums in Gabriel’s repertoire, but this whole thing – with or without his direct influence – feels authentically Peter Gabriel enough that I’m happy with this until the next one comes along (and if that’s not enough, he also has a couple of songs on the Wall-E soundtrack album that aren’t on Big Blue Ball.) It’s a solid collection that’ll tide fans of Gabriel and world music in general over for a while – if you give it time to grow on you.

Order this CD

  1. Whole Thing (5:29)
    featuring Francis Bebey, Alex Faku, Tim Finn, Peter Gabriel, Karl Walllinger, Andy White
  2. Habibe (7:14)
    featuring Natacha Atlas, Hossam Ramzy, Neil Sparkes
  3. Shadow (4:29)
    featuring Juan Cañizares, Papa Wemba
  4. Altus Silva (6:09)
    featuring Joseph Arthur, Ronan Browne, Deep Forest, James McNally, Iarla O’Lionáird, Vernon Reid
  5. Exit Through You (5:54)
    featuring Joseph Arthur, Peter Gabriel, Karl Wallinger
  6. Everything Comes From You (4:44)
    featuring Richard Evans, Joji Hirota, Sevara Nazarkhan, Sinead O’Connor, Guo Yue
  7. Burn You Up, Burn You Down (4:32)
    featuring Billy Cobham, Peter Gabriel, The Holmes Brothers, Wendy Melvoin, Arona N’Diaye, Jah Wobble
  8. Forest (6:18)
    featuring Levon Minassian, Arona N Diaye, Vernon Reid, Hukwe Zawose
  9. Rivers (5:46)
    featuring Vernon Reid, Marta Sebestyen, Karl Wallinger
  10. Jijy (4:01)
    Arona N’Diaye, Rossy, Jah Wobble
  11. Big Blue Ball (4:52)
    Peter Gabriel, Manu Katché, Karl Wallinger

Released by: RealWorld
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 59:28

Peter Gabriel – Up

Peter Gabriel - UpPeter Gabriel is such a busy performer, what with his occasional soundtrack songs (for such movies as Philadelphia and City Of Angels and his occasional soundtrack scoring (Long Walk Home, Birdy, Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ, etc.) and other projects which don’t quite qualify as solo albums (OVO). And it’s easy to forget, with all of that activity, that here we have a man who hasn’t really released a solo album in a decade. Let’s put that in perspective, shall we?

  • When Us was released, I was still working part-time in radio.
  • When Us was released, the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was still on the air, and it was still the only Star Trek series on TV. No one had ever heard of Babylon 5 or Xena.
  • When Us was released, the Persian Gulf War had been over for a year – or so many of us thought.
  • When Us was released, Britney Spears was still on the New Mickey Mouse Club, and Toad The Wet Sprocket was actually getting radio airplay.
  • When Us was released, I was in my 20s, not my 30s.

Now, bearing in mind that Up has been “just around the corner” since 1998 or so, there’s a certain anticipation factor at work here as well. Given that Pete’s soundtrack work in the past decade or so has been exceptional, most of his fans were eager to hear what it would be like when the man would actually open his mouth and sing again.

Up was either going to be nothing short of a spiritual revelation, or a total disappointment.

Actually, it’s neither – it’s a good album, certainly, but in some ways Gabriel has yet to match the diversity and virtuosity of 1986’s So, the album which put him on the charts with “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer”. There’s a certain introspective murkiness that has dominated Gabriel’s work, both solo and theatrical, since 1989’s Passion, which was the project where he fell in love with Mediterranean soundscapes and instruments. There’s nothing wong with that, but sometimes that atmosphere just doesn’t lend itself to a great pop song like “Big Time”.

Up opens with “Darkness”, which smacks mightily of the first song on his third self-titled album. Almighty searing blasts of distorted guitar belie the song’s true nature, which gets much quieter as it goes on despite a paranoid lyric that made sense with the blasting intro of the song. Things get a little more lively with the outstanding “Growing Up”, which is a complex, jumpy tune in which two or three simultaneous lyrics occasionally overlap, especially in the last verse of the song.

“Sky Blue” is a quiet, ambient number (featuring guitars by none other than Peter Green) which had already been heard to a certain extent – a few tracks on Gabriel’s soundtrack project Long Walk Home previewed the awesomely atmospheric backing vocals of the Blind Boys Of Alabama, though here the power of those vocals is somewhat diminished. I can’t really explain, but on Long Walk Home, the Blind Boys came out of nowhere and made a quiet little cue a show-stopper; here, they’re just echoing a melody that Gabriel’s been singing throughout the song.

“No Way Out” is another quiet song with an alarming and arresting lyric – the simplest interpretation of which is that someone standing next to the person singing the song has been shot – featuring former Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom on piano and Gabriel himself on guitar (I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of Pete playing guitar). Froom’s presence is no surprise, as the entire album is mixed by Tchad Blake, who also lent a lot of atmosphere to the latter Crowded House albums.

The next track, however, makes “Sky Blue”‘s recycling of vocals pale in comparison: “I Grieve”, though a nice song (which almost feels like two wildly different songs glued together), was heard two or three years ago on the City Of Angels soundtrack. If anything, this is my biggest beef with Up – I was hoping to hear completely new material. “Sky Blue” I can handle – it was previewed on a soundtrack mere months before Up‘s release – but “I Grieve” is a few years older than that.

“The Barry Williams Show”, a slightly dated pop number whose lyrics address Jerry Springer/Maury Povich-esque talk shows, has already been widely heard as the album’s lead single. It’s probably the most radio-ready song on the album, but its subject matter has passed its sell-by date, and one wonders how long ago it was written. Maybe around the same time as “I Grieve”.

The next four songs may be the most interesting stuff on the entire album: “My Head Sounds Like That” (guest starring the uniquely spare brass sound of the Black Dyke Band, which made OVO‘s “Father, Son” the sentimental tear-jerker that it is), more of the Blind Boys of Alabama on the upbeat “More Than This” (not a remake of the Bryan Ferry song of the same name), the epic orchestral grandeur of “Signal To Noise”, and the brief and surprisingly quiet closing number, “The Drop”. The last of these four is quite a shocker compared to the rest of the album, as it primarily features Gabriel’s untreated voice accompanied by an untreated solo piano (there are some other ambient-ish sounds in the mix too, but they’re way down in the mix).

“Signal To Noise” features the wailing vocals of guest Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the strings of the London Session Orchestra, and the thundering wall of sound of the Dhol Foundation Drummers, but while the guest performers and the arrangement are very impressive, the basic melody itself and the sparse lyrics are almost like something out of Gabriel’s second or third album; it’s a simple song, nicely dressed up. And speaking of guest performers, I couldn’t help but notice that Jon Brion got a credit in “More Than This” – seems that even though he can’t get a major label to release that underrated (and finished) album of his, Brion’s getting plenty of attention from other musicians. That may be a higher compliment than record sales anyway.

3 out of 4Overall, Up is yet another intense Peter Gabriel listening experience, but in some places it’s curiously lacking the heart of his earlier works. And I’ll admit, Gabriel’s increasing tendency to borrow from his own back catalogue is becoming worrisome – this coming from someone who’d prefer to hear new material when he plunks money down on the counter for a supposedly new CD. Still, I recommend it – perhaps Up will be an instance of an album that finds new fans for Gabriel rather than living up to the wishes of his established listeners.

Order this CD

  1. Darkness (6:51)
  2. Growing Up (7:33)
  3. Sky Blue (6:31)
  4. No Way Out (7:53)
  5. I Grieve (7:24)
  6. The Barry Williams Show (7:16)
  7. My Head Sounds Like That (6:29)
  8. More Than This (6:02)
  9. Signal To Noise (7:36)
  10. The Drop (2:59)

Released by: Geffen
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 66:43

Long Walk Home: music from The Rabbit-Proof Fence

The Rabbit-Proof Fence soundtrackPeter Gabriel has always turned out fairly interesting soundtracks, whether they’re built on the same blocks as his solo non-film releases (Birdy) or completely original material (Passion: Music From The Last Temptation Of Christ, or, arguably also a soundtrack, OVO). Long Walk Home manages to fall under the latter category while also delivering a very tantalizing preview of Gabriel’s seventh solo album, Up.

The preview element comes from the fact that many of the musicians who lent their talents to this film score – perhaps most notably the legendary gospel group, the Blind Boys Of Alabama – are also playing a part on Gabriel’s next solo album. On its own, Long Walk Home is a hauntingly atmospheric accompaniment to an Australian film about three Aborigine children kidnapped and sold into servitude. They escape, using the rabbit-proof fence that divides the country to find their way back home. Given the movie’s subject matter, the emphasis on dijeridoo on the first half of the CD is appropriate, but it’s also beautiful. Gabriel has become so well known for using elements of Middle Eastern music in his own works that it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of other styles we haven’t heard him employ, and this redresses the balance nicely.

Toward of the score, the Blind Boys of Alabama take center stage, gradually beginning to add a soulful, wordless vocal to the music, and the effect is breathtaking. On the first listening, I was thinking to myself, “Well, that’s an interesting choice. Now it almost sounds more like music from a movie about the American civil rights movement.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the parallel is utterly appropriate, and either way, the music is strikingly beautiful and haunting. It’s not background music. It still stops me dead in my tracks whenever the voices of Blind Boys of Alabama rise into the mix.

4 out of 4Now I’m starting to wish that The Rabbit-Proof Fence, the movie for which this music was composed, were available on this side of the equator. Ah well…I suppose that’s what multi-region DVD players are for. In any event, the soundtrack is a must-hear, even if you’re slightly disappointed that it’s not Gabriel’s new solo project. Once you hear Long Walk Home, I think you’ll get over any such disappointment.

Order this CD

  1. Jigalong (4:03)
  2. Stealing The Children (3:20)
  3. Unlocking The Door (1:58)
  4. The Tracker (2:47)
  5. Running To The Rain (3:19)
  6. On The Map (1:00)
  7. A Sense Of Home (1:59)
  8. Go Away Mr. Evans (5:15)
  9. Moodoo’s Secret (3:03)
  10. Gracie’s Recapture (4:40)
  11. Crossing The Salt Pan (5:08)
  12. The Return, Parts 1, 2 and 3 (10:26)
  13. Ngankarrparni (Sky Blue – reprise) (6:01)
  14. The Rabbit Proof Fence (1:07)
  15. Cloudless (4:50)

Released by: RealWorld
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 58:58

Peter Gabriel – OVO

Peter Gabriel - OVOFar be it from Peter Gabriel to do anything conventional. Seemingly dormant since 1992’s Us, Gabriel has participated in various other projects and has released world music albums by other performers on his RealWorld label, but is long overdue for another release of his own. Actually getting to hear the man’s voice has been a rare thing over the past decade.

But in 1999, Gabriel was contacted to contribute to the musical theater presentation being planned for the Millennium Dome in London – a presentation Gabriel all but took over with the sprawling work presented on OVO.

To be sure, Gabriel’s voice is not prominent on this collection, and depending on which pressing you’re able to locate, OVO may not even be attributed to Gabriel except as composer. (He does, in fact, tackle the vocal duties on “Father, Son”, “Make Tomorrow” and “The Tower That Ate People”.) Other performers include Elisabeth Fraser, Neneh Cherry, and Ritchie Havens.

What kind of music is OVO? The answer is every kind. The first track segues from world music into rap in very short order, while the second is more ambient and quiet. Havens takes center stage on the lovely and contemplative “Time Of The Turning”, a song about death and rebirth and perhaps even evolution (one of the themes of the OVO stage show). With its gentle orchestral backing set to a world music beat, “Time Of The Turning” is easily the highlight of the album. The same tune returns two tracks later as a wild, Riverdance-style jig which again blends a full orchestra with the primal pounding of the Dhol Foundation Drummers, achieving a stunning effect unlike anything I’ve heard before. About one minute before that piece ends, there’s a euphoric burst of brass and percussion which always elicits a “Wow!” out of me – despite the fact I’ve probably listened to that track fifteen or twenty times. Eat your heart out, Paul Simon.

Gabriel follows this up with the heartfelt ballad “Father, Son”, which managed to get me a little misty-eyed every time I hear it. Again, brass comes into play here, with a sentimental minimalist backing which reminds me a little of the small brass band in the title track from Crowded House’s Together Alone.

The remainder of the album has a typically Gabriel sound, and the last track has an epic length.

4 out of 4I can’t rate OVO highly enough – nor can I wait much longer for Gabriel’s next solo album, which is supposedly right around the corner. If it’s as good as the material on OVO, then maybe Pete’s just now hitting his stride. And if it isn’t… perhaps OVO and Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ are indications that Peter Gabriel’s music may best be suited to some manner of visual experience…or, at the very least, his inspiration.

Order this CD

  1. The Story of OVO (5:23)
  2. Low Light (6:37)
  3. The Time Of The Turning (5:34)
  4. The Man Who Loved The Earth, The Hand That Sold Shadows (4:14)
  5. The Time Of The Turning (reprise), The Weaver’s Reel (5:39)
  6. Father, Son (4:56)
  7. The Tower That Ate People (4:49)
  8. Revenge (1:30)
  9. White Ashes (2:35)
  10. Downside-Up (6:04)
  11. The Nest That Sailed The Sky (5:06)
  12. Make Tomorrow (9:58)

Released by: RealWorld
Release date: 2000
Total running time: 62:22

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel I

Peter Gabriel IPeter Gabriel’s first solo effort is an eye-opener for this kid who’d heard little of the former Genesis frontman until 1986’s So. I’ve always been impressed and inspired by the vast expanses of Gabriel’s musical style, and his 1977 album is no exception. So much has been made of Gabriel as world music spokesman and human rights activist, I sometimes think we’ve forgotten the splendor of Peter Gabriel, rock musician. The straight-ahead pop of “Solsbury Hill”, the harmonies of “Excuse Me”, and the orchestral-rock anthem “Down The Dolce Vita” speak to that oft-overlooked ability that Gabriel has to synthesize different styles, and come up with tunes that cross genre lines without sounding like cheesy attempts at crossovers. The music is also boosted by Bob Ezrin’s crisp production – I really wish Ezrin had produced the second album as well (which was instead handled by Robert Fripp). While Fripp clearly had a seminal influence on Gabriel, 3 out of 4there’s something clean and uncluttered about Ezrin’s presentation on the first album that I really liked. Rather than cloaking the vocals with layers of instrumentation – and, for the record, contrary to some reports, Peter Gabriel can sing – the vocals were crystal clear here. Come to think of it, so was everything else, and that’s something that I miss occasionally in Peter Gabriel’s thickly layered latter-day output.

Order this CD

  1. Moribund the Burgermeister (4:19)
  2. Solsbury Hill (4:20)
  3. Modern Love (3:37)
  4. Excuse Me (3:20)
  5. Humdrum (3:23)
  6. Slowburn (4:34)
  7. Waiting For The Big One (7:26)
  8. Down The Dolce Vita (4:43)
  9. Here Comes The Flood (5:54)

Released by: Atco
Release date: 1977
Total running time: 42:25

Birdy – music by Peter Gabriel

Birdy soundtrackSince this movie soundtrack is constructed out of instrumental versions of material from the third Peter Gabriel album and Security, it may seem like a redundant purchase, but there are several new tracks, and even the familiar tunes are interesting to hear without the words (especially – go ahead and yawn here if you like – an instrumental version of “Rhythm Of The Heat”). Probably the best track here is “Birdy’s Flight”, which is essentially a long, somber intro and then the pulse-pounding 3 out of 4ending from the song “Not One Of Us”, and let me tell you, it’s quite a rush. Whew.

  1. At Night (2:38)
  2. Floating Dogs (2:55)
  3. Quiet and Alone (2:30)
  4. Close Up – derived from “Family Snapshot” (0:58)
  5. Slow Water (2:51)
  6. Order this CD Dressing the Wound (4:06)
  7. Birdy’s Flight – derived from “Not One Of Us” (2:58)
  8. Slow Marimbas (3:21)
  9. The Heat – derived from “Rhythm of the Heat” (4:41)
  10. Sketchpad with Trumpet and Voice (3:05)
  11. Under Lock and Key – derived from “Wallflower” (2:28)
  12. Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain – derived from “San Jacinto” (2:19)

Released by: Geffen
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 35:39