I should start with some words from Uncle Frank:
The Ultimate Rule ought to be: “If it sounds GOOD to YOU, it’s bitchen; and if it sounds BAD to YOU, it’s shitty.” . . .
On a record, the overall timbre of the piece (determined by equalization of individual parts and their proportions in the mix) tells you, in a subtle way, WHAT the song is about. The orchestration provides important information about what the composition IS and, in some instances, assumes a greater importance than the composition itself.
— Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book
Thought diversion number one. Diversion number two? Seconds Out.
The Genesis that I love is the Peter Gabriel era, almost to the note and not a note further. The loss of Gabriel to the band was the beginning of the end without question. But Seconds Out is pretty much the same band with the same personnel, and there’s no way I could stand flat-footed and say that anything was ever made worse by adding Chester Thompson or Bill Brueford to it. Maybe chili, but I would still eat it.
That being said, even with the words of Uncle Frank echoing in my mind and asking me “does it sound bitchen?”, I can’t help but to like Seconds Out a little bit less because Gabriel is not in it. My petulant musical id blames Phil Collins for destroying Genesis and hates him for it.
That loyalty has, recently, started to waver.
Genesis is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Peter Gabriel will not be there for the ceremony. He has had his own reasons for not working with the band in the past, but this isn’t a gig; he needs to show up and claim his role in the success in Genesis. The Genesis that he was a part of, I am sure, won the band more votes than “I Can’t Dance”.
The reason he isn’t coming, according to Gabriel, is that it conflicts with his touring schedule. Admittingly, I could take or leave Gabriel’s solo work. I feel comfortable in saying, though, that his relevance as an artist is more born from his artistic vision in Genesis and less as his work as a solo artist. Maybe more energy should be put into the present than in the past, which might explain letting your current art take precedence over your former.
But listening to Scratch My Back does not make me believe that anything too energetic is being done by Peter Gabriel to have artistic relevance in the present. Scratch My Back is pretentious and dreadful sounding.
Uncle Frank’s lesson on timbre is best learned in comparing Peter Gabriel’s cover of “Flume”, the first track from Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
Much has been ballyhooed about the circumstances of Justin Vernon recording For Emma, Forever Ago; broken heart, stuck in a cabin alone, et all. But to call the instrumentation, the orchestration, or the arrangement of “Flume” simple or sparse would be in error. There is a rich woven sonic picture in the song; the rattle of loose screws in the guitar and the tape hiss before the vocals kick in (like a Pavlav bell for GBV fans) lend authenticity to the sentiment of the lyrics. The motor of the strumming and foot stomping give the vocals in the verses, and the sustained note responses after each verse(keyboard? electric guitar?), a steadiness that allow the swell and fade of the melodic lines to stand out. The overdubbed harmony voices in the choruses provide an unobtrusive weight, while the echo chamber notes and low-string electric guitar provide some suspense, which leads into a section of guitar harmonics and acoustic restlessness adding more suspense, which is resolved by adding a female voice into the chorus. The timbre is very telling of a complicated love and loneliness, the same store the lyrics are telling.
Did Peter Gabriel pick this song to cover to highlight his(John Metcalfe’s?) sparse arranging? Gabriel’s cover is flat, anticlimactic, and cold. Consisting of Gabriel’s voice, piano, and brass choir, the sparse ensemble fails to capture any richness; the vocals are never doubled, harmonized, or even supported by any other instrument. What opportunity there is for crescendo in the choir is used to little to build drama in the countermelody line, and, save for a clichéd French horn swell or two, the individual members of the choir aren’t used to contrasting effect. The piano fails to replace the motor of the original; the lyrics seem to fall between the chords, not soar and dive above them. There is painfully little contrast in the vocal deliveries (it seems even that the low-range verses and high-wailing choruses add a different weight to the lyrical meaning, focusing more on “she’s the moon” more than “I am my mother’s only son”).
This cover, and the others on this album, seem to fall short of any musical goal. The goal, more likely, was some sort of awful attempt Peter Gabriel made to add relevance to his current career. Many of the covers are from young upstart musicians; I can imagine the conversation was “oh, they liked that Vampire Weekend thing? Wait’ll they get a load of this!” The accompanying album, the artists recording Peter Gabriel songs, is almost an unearnest tribute album. Ugh.
A part of me feels shitty writing this, and I’m not trying to question Peter Gabriel’s integrity as a musician. His motives for this album, though? It couldn’t have been about the music. I know what I like, sure. But not taking the time to acknowledge how bitchen you were doesn’t pair well with trying, and failing, to prove how bitchen you are.