I’ve been a Peter Gabriel fan for more than 20 years. His music is practically encoded into my DNA.
I was 12 years old when So, his most successful album, was released. Gabriel was one of the first to see the true potential of the music video format – he turned in these marvelous, imaginative, insanely complicated videos for “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” that knocked 12-year-old me out. (35-year-old me still likes them a lot, too.) I’m not even sure I responded to the music as much as I did the videos, but I had to own So.
Over the next few years, I asked for Gabriel albums as birthday and Christmas presents (this was before I was earning my own money), and soon had the whole set. On cassette, mind you. I didn’t realize how revolutionary much of this music was. All I knew was that “The Rhythm of the Heat” scared the crap out of me, and “Down the Dolce Vita” made me jump around the room, and “Mercy Street” made me cry. My favorite was the third self-titled album, commonly called Melt – the first four albums were simply titled Peter Gabriel, like issues of a magazine – because it creeped me the fuck out. If you also heard “Intruder” at a similar age, you know what I mean.
Now, of course, I know just how important and amazing Peter Gabriel is. He was incorporating music and musicians from around the world before it was fashionable, he wrote about important people and issues, and he never sat still. People consider So a commercial album, but it found Gabriel embracing influences he’d never tried, including Motown soul and funk, and merging them with his literate pop and African world-beat sound. That album has all kinds of dazzling musicians playing on it, from French drummer Manu Katche to Indian violinist L. Shankar to Nile Rodgers, who played with Aretha Franklin and Parliament Funkadelic, among others.
Since then, Gabriel’s output has slowed down, and weakened. Neither Us, from 1992, or Up, from 2002, added much to his legacy, and aside from soundtrack work, that’s been it. But those records were, in their own not-entirely-successful ways, just as adventurous as his early works, and proof that Gabriel still deserves his place as one of the greats. (Okay, “The Barry Williams Show” is one of the worst songs of the decade. But “Growing Up,” “Sky Blue,” “I Grieve” and “Signal to Noise” are pretty wonderful.)
I mention all of this just to get Gabriel’s credentials out there, because without such a firm foundation of brilliant work behind him, his latest project would seem both batty and egotistical. I don’t think it’s either, but I’ll let you be the judge. Gabriel is engaged in a song swap with a dozen artists – he has covered a song by each of them on an album called Scratch My Back, and they’ve all agreed to record one of his songs on an upcoming companion disc called I’ll Scratch Yours. Essentially, in addition to a covers record, Gabriel is assembling a tribute album to himself.
But if anyone has earned the right to do something like this, it’s probably Peter Gabriel. And lest you think this is some sort of quickie cash-in project, I should tell you there are a couple of twists befitting an unpredictable artist of Gabriel’s stature. For one, in addition to the expected group of influences and peers (Paul Simon, the Talking Heads, David Bowie), Gabriel has covered some unexpectedly modern songs from new bands. Elbow. Arcade Fire. Bon Iver. The Magnetic Fields. Regina Spektor. Seriously.
And for another, he’s arranged all of his versions for voice, piano and orchestra. No drums, no guitars, no keyboards. This choice has led some to call Scratch My Back maudlin and morose, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gabriel has found and preserved the hearts of these songs like precious jewels, and cast them in glorious new settings. The orchestral arrangements are astonishing – joyous and full one minute, menacing and sparse the next – and in each case, he’s found a way to make me feel like I’ve never heard these songs before.
Take “The Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon’s ode to the wonder and horror of technology. On Graceland (released the same year as So), the song is a januty accordion-fueled hoot, emphasizing the joy in the chorus over the menace of the verses. Gabriel’s is exactly the opposite, a piano dirge that really drives home lyrics like “The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.” When he gets to the chorus (“These are the days of miracle and wonder, don’t cry, baby, don’t cry…”), it sounds more like a comforting lie than anything else. Gabriel’s take flips the song on its ear, and while it will never replace the original (nor was it intended to), it provides a dark mirror to view it through.
He works similar magic on Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” from 2007’s Neon Bible. The original was a blues-inflected lament, one that got lost amid that record’s more ecstatic pomp. For about half of his six-minute version, Gabriel sings the lyric’s mantra of pain over a funereal two-chord piano march, and then he lets the strings explode in a rapturous cry to the heavens. He lets loose vocally here too, giving one of those patented Peter Gabriel howls, and they haven’t lost an ounce of their goose-bump-inducing power. Then – then! – he shifts to a major key and brings in a spectral choir for the final minute, crying “Set my spirit free” as the music evaporates. It’s astonishing, really.
Time has been especially kind to Gabriel’s voice, here as stripped and raw as we’ve ever heard it. He’s said he wanted the singing on Scratch My Back to be as “personal as possible,” and though he sounds as powerful as ever on workouts like Bon Iver’s “Flume” and Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi,” he lets a weary creakiness into his voice on several songs. His version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” personifies this approach, as Gabriel’s falsetto breaks like glass and his voice drips with despair. It’s a challenging listen, and it was clearly meant to be.
But he balances it off with wonderfully romantic takes on Elbow’s “Mirrorball,” the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love,” and Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart.” And he plucks a Talking Heads song from near-obscurity and reinvents it: “Listening Wind” comes near the end of the Heads’ 1980 Remain in Light, a forgotten gem, and Gabriel’s foreboding, propulsive string arrangement (created with John Metcalfe) infuses it with new life. It is, perhaps, this record’s finest moment.
I mentioned at the top that I’ve been a Peter Gabriel fan for more than 20 years, and it’s records like this that keep me one. Gabriel has never stopped finding ways to surprise me, and this album certainly qualifies. Gabriel covering Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and other modern artists, with an orchestra? Yeah. But he’s created something magical here, an album of quietly intense melancholy and haunted beauty. I simply can’t stop listening to it, and even if I’ll Scratch Yours is a disaster, I’m beyond glad to have this.
(As a side note, two of the I’ll Scratch Yours tracks have been released – the Magnetic Fields’ odd synth carnival take on “Not One of Us,” and Paul Simon’s acoustic read of “Biko.” They’re both marvelous. I’m hearing, though, that some of the artists are having second thoughts, so we’ll see if this ever comes to fruition. As with all things Gabriel, we live in hope, and we wait.)
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The other two albums on tap this week come courtesy of longtime reader and correspondent Lucas Beeley. He and his brother Steve have turned me on to more than their share of terrific artists, and though I’ve never met either of them, they’ve kept in contact with me for years, offering thoughts and recommendations. I’m grateful for both of them – I’d probably still be ignorant of the two bands that follow, and a whole host of others, without the Beeley brothers. So thanks, guys.
Sticking with the slow and the pretty, then, we have Midlake. What an interesting band. They’ve made three albums with exactly the same lineup, and yet you’d think they were by three different groups. First came the ‘60s-inspired bargain-basement psychedelica of Banman and Silvercork, then the ‘70s-influenced rock of The Trials of Van Occupanther. (Really. That’s the record’s actual name.) Now here’s The Courage of Others, and the band has toned down nearly every other influence except English folk music.
The result, however incongruous, is lovely. Courage is 42 minutes of acoustic guitars, minor keys and haunting melodies. A lot of the songs feature flutes and recorders, played by leader Tim Smith. Now, I don’t mean this as an insult in any way, just as a frame of reference if you’re wondering what this sounds like: imagine if someone made an entire record out of the first four minutes of “Stairway to Heaven.” That’s basically it. (Oh, come on. As overplayed as it is, “Stairway to Heaven” is a pretty fantastic song.)
The problem I have with this album is its unrelenting consistency. The tempos are the same throughout, the minor keys start to blur after a while, and Smith never finds a different tone. One by one, these songs are beautiful – “Winter Dies” has some fine electric guitar moments, the chorus of “Small Mountain” is gorgeous, and “Rulers, Ruling All Things” sends chills. But while I may love this in small doses, it loses me over the course of the disc.
It’s fascinating to me that a band that has hopped styles more in three records than most bands do in ten chose to set such narrow parameters this time out. I don’t want to discourage you from trying this out, because these songs are very pretty, and they’re played very well. I like The Courage of Others, I just wish Midlake had taken a few more musical detours instead of giving us what is, essentially, a 42-minute song that never changes.
Much more successful is Shearwater, whose sixth album The Golden Archipelago is another best-of-the-year candidate in a first quarter chock full of them. Shearwater started as an Okkervil River side project, but now is the musical outlet of Jonathan Meiburg, an avid birdwatcher with a sense of the fragile beauty of nature. He’s dedicated the last three Shearwater albums to this theme, and they form a loose trilogy.
Meiburg cites several influences for Archipelago, the concluding chapter, but I only hear one: Talk Talk. This album is like the second coming of Spirit of Eden – Meiburg’s mid-range vocals sound like Mark Hollis’ more than ever here, and the songs exist on vibe more than anything else. They cast a spell, and then wrap you up in it.
There is one major difference, however: while Hollis and his musicians stretched out over nine-minute pieces, Archipelago is the opposite of sprawling. The whole thing is a scant 38 minutes, and only two songs break the four-minute mark. It is, in many ways, too short, but I only say that because what’s here is so marvelous. Where the previous two Shearwater albums (Palo Santo and Rook) occasionally launched into more standard rock moments, this one ebbs and flows naturally, its unearthly atmosphere never breaking.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have a pulse. Songs like “Black Eyes” and the rollicking “Corridors” crank up the electric guitars – just check out the awesome circular figure the latter is based on. But like waves receding back into the ocean, each louder moment is met with a fragile and beautiful one. Opener “Meridian” is quiet and supple, and “Hidden Lakes” is gentle and swaying, all piano, cello, chimes and Meiburg’s chilling voice.
The easiest way to describe what this album sounds like is to point you to the front cover. It’s a spacious photograph of a vast seascape, a single boat heading out to an island in the distance. It’s panoramic, widescreen and dramatic, and yet simultaneously peaceful and placid. It’s a snapshot of a long journey ahead, though the waters are calm and the sky is bright. It’s a picture of the enormous and majestic beauty and terror of the world. The music sounds like that.
The Golden Archipelago may be the final chapter of this trilogy, but to my ears, it’s the album on which Meiburg has found his sound. Next time, I hope he stretches out a little more – I wouldn’t have minded if some of these songs, like “Landscape at Speed” and “Castaways,” went on forever. But there is no one else making music quite like this right now, music that quietly surrounds you with as much force as this album does. It is one of the best records of an uncommonly good year so far, but better than that, it promises even better things on the horizon from Shearwater. And better than this will be something indeed.
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Here’s the next installment in my top 20 of the decade. We’re almost halfway through!
#12. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream (2001).
Here’s another one very few people have heard. I say that with no joy whatsoever. I’m not trying to pump up my cred by praising an obscure band. I’m honestly depressed that only a few thousand people have experienced Terry Taylor’s masterpiece. Had these songs been recorded by Wilco, or some other Americana-flavored million-seller, it would be on many more top 10 lists than this one. But they were recorded by a quartet of relative unknowns from California, a band that, despite having released more than a dozen studio albums over 35 years, languishes in unjust obscurity.
Terry Scott Taylor is one of the best songwriters nobody knows. In spiritual pop circles, he’s an icon, one of the first people to bring a genuine sense of art to the game. He’s had a remarkable career, first guiding Daniel Amos through a stunning run of records in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then forming the sarcastic, biting Swirling Eddies and the rootsy supergroup The Lost Dogs, all while continuing to make challenging, striking music with his main band. He even found time to release four solo albums and two EPs, and score a few video games. The man’s prolific, but consistently brilliant.
As good as albums like Alarma and Doppelganger and Darn Floor Big Bite and Motorcycle are, Mr. Buechner’s Dream may be the best thing Taylor’s ever done. It’s 33 songs, spans more than 100 minutes, and sets all of Taylor’s pet themes – faith, doubt, the pain and beauty of life, and the struggle to describe God in song – to some of the most straightforward, convincingly rocking music of Daniel Amos’ career. These songs are unfailingly melodic and singable, and they pack a punch – the album was produced by the band, and much of it sounds beautifully live.
The songs. The songs! Over 33 tracks, you’d expect some clunkers, but Taylor and company never put a foot wrong. The first disc shares a title with the album, and it’s the more rootsy of the two – 20 songs, most of which buzz by in a blur of stinging guitars. It opens with an exhortation to seize the day (“This is the One”), and Taylor does: “The Author of the Story” is one of his most beautiful tunes, delightfully muddied up by Greg Flesch’s noisy guitar and Tim Chandler’s elastic bass; “Who’s Who Here” knocks its repetitive riff to the ground with a muscular shove; “Faithful Street” brings in the horns for a Beatlesque romp; and “The Staggering Gods” simply rocks.
But there’s much sweetness and subtlety here as well. “Rice Paper Wings” is as fragile as its title, “I Get to Wondering” weaves an acoustic web, and Taylor has rarely written a better hymn than “Joel,” the deceptively noisy tune that closes the disc. Lyrically, the first album is about God and family, but it contains not one cliché – as Taylor himself writes in “Ribbons and Bows,” “There may not ever be anything new here to say, but I’m fond of finding words that say it in a different way.”
Good as the first disc is, I think the second eclipses it. This is the darker half, the more musically adventurous side, and it’s quite a ride. “Easy For You” is a gritty and difficult tale of envy, “Child on a Leash” a yearning cry for completeness, and “So Far So Good” a… well, I’m not sure what this pitch-black and haunting song is about, but it’s terrific. It’s not all shadow – there’s the country-punk “She’s a Hard Drink,” which contains Taylor’s funniest line: “She’s a bad dream, like an adam’s apple on a beauty queen…”
Taylor spends the final third of the album eulogizing old friends who’ve passed, and taking in the wonder of life. “Flash in Your Eyes” is about Gene Eugene, one of the original Lost Dogs, who died in 2000, while the lovely “Steal Away” is about knowing when to leave before the flood. Closer “And So it Goes” is a final toast to “our dear dead dears,” as Taylor once put it on another album, and could also stand as the final glass raised to Daniel Amos itself. As of this writing, Mr. Buechner’s Dream is the final DA record.
That’s a shame, but all in all, this collection would be an incredible way to go out. Buechner’s is an artistic triumph, a remarkably quick 105 minutes full of songs most writers would kill to have in their catalogs. It has a depth and an emotional undercurrent that few records of its length can match, and a lyrical complexity that remains a hallmark of Terry Taylor. I take very good care of my CDs, but my copy of Mr. Buechner’s Dream is battered and worn. I’ve played it to death, and it’s like an old friend now, one I couldn’t imagine the last 10 years without.
This is probably my favorite Terry Taylor album, but they’re all worth hearing. Log onto danielamos.com for more info. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is out of print at the moment, but I suggest Darn Floor Big Bite, Live at Cornerstone 2000 or the latest Swirling Eddies album, The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule, to tide you over until it’s re-pressed. There’s a lot of Terry Taylor music to explore, and if you’ve never heard any of it, I envy you. Get cracking.
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Next week, the last Johnny Cash album, and brief looks at Broken Bells, Frightened Rabbit, Gorillaz and Liars. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.