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.
So 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.
- Whole Thing (5:29)
featuring Francis Bebey, Alex Faku, Tim Finn, Peter Gabriel, Karl Walllinger, Andy White
- Habibe (7:14)
featuring Natacha Atlas, Hossam Ramzy, Neil Sparkes
- Shadow (4:29)
featuring Juan CaÃ±izares, Papa Wemba
- Altus Silva (6:09)
featuring Joseph Arthur, Ronan Browne, Deep Forest, James McNally, Iarla O’LionÃ¡ird, Vernon Reid
- Exit Through You (5:54)
featuring Joseph Arthur, Peter Gabriel, Karl Wallinger
- Everything Comes From You (4:44)
featuring Richard Evans, Joji Hirota, Sevara Nazarkhan, Sinead O’Connor, Guo Yue
- Burn You Up, Burn You Down (4:32)
featuring Billy Cobham, Peter Gabriel, The Holmes Brothers, Wendy Melvoin, Arona N’Diaye, Jah Wobble
- Forest (6:18)
featuring Levon Minassian, Arona N Diaye, Vernon Reid, Hukwe Zawose
- Rivers (5:46)
featuring Vernon Reid, Marta Sebestyen, Karl Wallinger
- Jijy (4:01)
Arona N’Diaye, Rossy, Jah Wobble
- Big Blue Ball (4:52)
Peter Gabriel, Manu KatchÃ©, Karl Wallinger
Released by: RealWorld
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 59:28