"Scratch My Back"
There seems to be two motivations behind Peter Gabriel's new album, one playful and the other more serious. The first gives the project its title: Gabriel covered compositions by 12 working artists, including David Bowie, Neil Young, Arcade Fire and the Magnetic Fields. He also invited them to plumb his own catalog for an upcoming answer record titled "I'll Scratch Yours."
Some have called this proposition opportunistic, a way for Gabriel to both reassert his place alongside more iconic elders and make a DNA connection with arty youngsters. In fact, the gesture's more natural for Gabriel than it's been for most sexagenarians who've sought a lift from the kids. He's a lifelong collaborator whose WOMAD festivals and Real World label have cultivated a serious international music community; and his current nonmusical projects, like the Hub ("a YouTube for human rights"), imagine Internet-driven connectivity as a kind of potlatch.
More questionable is Gabriel's rendering of his half of the exchange. Instead of highlighting what younger artists actually seem to love about his own work -- its cosmopolitan spirit, written in the rhythms of soul, qawwali and Afrobeat -- Gabriel has gone for an exceedingly Western art song approach. No bass, no drums from the man who gave us "Sledgehammer"? Why?
I'd guess that Gabriel has a higher goal, as usual. By turning these songs into Shakespearean soliloquies, he argues for their complexity and depth, their right to be considered as art songs. The arrangements by John Metcalfe (a veteran of the classical-crossover world through his work in the Durutti Column) are either fully orchestral or simply piano-based; they expose the narrative and melodic bones of each song, connecting Paul Simon to John Adams and Bon Iver to Arvo Part.
The gesture seems a bit superfluous, given the prevalence of semiclassical music today. (Where's the Joanna Newsom song?) But it's loving, and when it works Gabriel's interpretations take your breath away. "Listening Wind," a somewhat forgotten Talking Heads song, reveals itself as a taut tale of international intrigue. Neil Young's "Philadelphia," a deep cut from the same film soundtrack that contained Gabriel's own Al Green-kissed "Lovetown," is restored to the status of a secular hymn.
These songs deserve Gabriel's serious consideration, as do all of his choices -- there's not a dud among them. Yet it's impossible to not pine for some rhythm here and a chance for this outstanding ballad singer to also show off his intact talent for soulful whooping and wailing. Maybe that's planned for Gabriel's next exchange. Because what's a potlatch without dancing?
-- Ann Powers Grappling with some big issues
"The Open Road"
John Hiatt's music has frequently had issues of family at or near the core. That's true of his latest album, but the perspective reaches beyond primary relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, to take on bigger questions of heritage and legacy.
That's a big chunk to bite off, but as one of rock's most astute singer-songwriters of the last 40 years, Hiatt brings considerable insight and his characteristic wry humor to the task.
At 57, Hiatt doesn't have much time for boy-meets/loses-girl scenarios. He's sharing the explorations of a man recognizing his weaknesses ("Like a Freight Train") and acknowledging his debt to those who've come before ("Homeland") on the way to discovering his core values ("Go Down Swingin' ").
Not that he bypasses the four-letter word that is "love." In "What Kind of Man," as he's been throughout his estimable career, he's far more interested in plumbing his own nefarious attitudes than finding someone else on whom to affix blame for his troubles: "You see the man who loves you/You see the man you love/But I have hidden claws/Inside these gloves."
This bluesy, heartland-soaked musical excursion features meaty support from guitarist Doug Lancio, bassist Patrick O' Hearn and drummer Kenneth Blevins, wittily informed nods to such influences as Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and Willie Dixon and plenty of the rock soulfulness that's integral to the sound he's been honing for decades.
-- Randy Lewis It works for LeBron . . .
Beluga Heights/Warner Bros.
On three singles from Jason Derulo's self-titled debut album, he starts the song by enthusiastically crooning his own name. It's a pretty goofy thing for the young singer to do, but the third-person shout-out to himself makes a certain sense after taking in the whole record. Derulo tackles an array of earnest trance-pop, glossy guitar rock and buttoned-down R&B over the album's nine tracks. His reminders that a single artist is responsible are actually rather helpful.
Weirdly, the post-genre pastiche works. Derulo gets a strong songwriting assist from producer J.R. Rotem here -- one rarely waits more than a few seconds for something deliriously catchy to happen. He's a nimble vocalist who uses Auto-Tune the way T-Pain does -- as an accent to already sharp melodies like the churning "In My Head" or the fizzy disco-pop of "The Sky's the Limit." The Haitian American Derulo also knows exactly when to deploy his Caribbean lilt to ramp up a song's melodrama, and it's one of his best vocal tricks.
The veering eclecticism of the album suggests that he's still figuring out his sound though, and he won't have untilled Imogen Heap samples, like on the inescapable "Whatcha Say," to work off of forever. Nonetheless, it's a pleasure-packed debut, and Derulo's melismatic call sign should be pouring out of car windows for the duration of 2010.
-- August Brown