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Music: Peter Gabriel * * *

A bold Peter Gabriel has found a new approach to cover albums that guarantees featured artists will reciprocate, writes Eamon Carr

I'm killin' your brain like a poisonous mushroom. Deadly...". Despite their televised Saturday night shenanigans, talent contest zeitgeist duo Jedward have failed to capture the existential angst and sense of urban desolation implicit in the twin pillars of old-skool schlock Under Pressure and Ice Ice Baby. David Bowie, Queen and Mr Vanilla Ice (the latter guests with the twins) might well rue a missed opportunity to have their message of coping in an apocalyptic environment delivered to a world under siege. But not every performer can get the best from a song. Sometimes not even the person who wrote it.

After his harrowing redemptive interpretation, Hurt will forever be associated with Johnny Cash and not NIN's Trent Reznor. And, remarkably, Jeff Buckley found something extra in Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

Former Genesis frontman, Peter Gabriel says he likes a good song. Of late, he's taken his time writing them. Apart from Ovo, his Millennium Dome project and some film soundtrack work, he's released just two albums of original songs, Us and Up, since 1992.

Not that he hasn't been busy. Gabriel's extra- curricular work, much of it humanitarian, is too extensive to catalogue.

An element of exchange makes this venture something of a collaborative exercise. Gabriel sought assurance from each of the writer-performers whose songs he was recording that they'd interpret one of his songs. "The intention was that we would each do the song in our own idiosyncratic way," he says. Scratch My Back is not a karaoke fest. Nor is it a standard set of re-threads à la Bowie's Pin Ups or a genre-bending star guest parade like Mark Ronson's Version.

Gabriel, a man who'd be familiar with Estonian composer Arvo Part's neo-classical minimalism, opts for an orchestrated backdrop for these songs. The idea was to keep things simple and stark. It's an inspired approach.

The album opener, Bowie and Brian Eno's Heroes, creeps in like a Henryk Gorecki meditation. "I, I wish I could swim, like dolphins, like dolphins can swim....". It's captivating stuff. Even more hopeless and fractured than the original.

That sense of the theatrical that Gabriel displayed when he dressed up in outlandish costumes for Genesis' concerts is still central to the man's work.

There's something operatic, stagey almost, about his readings of these songs. But when it works, as on Paul Simon's The Boy In The Bubble and Talking Heads' Listening Wind, it's arresting and provocative. In both cases, Gabriel's dismantles the song with the precision of a bomb disposal expert. Allowing room for the powerful imagery of Simon's lyrics to hit home, is Gabriel's masterstroke. Scratchy violin and cellos set up David Byrne and Eno's song from 1980's Remain In Light reminding you of the song's profound prescience.

Accepting hints from his friends and family, Gabriel includes contemporary songs. Elbow's Mirrorball proves the perfect vehicle for both the orchestral pyrotechnics of arranger John Metcalf (Durutti Column) and Gabriel's ability to convey a sense of vulnerable affirmation.

Bon Iver's inner Supertramp makes Flume seem tailormade for Gabriel. Despite the orchestral build up, Arcade Fire's My Body Is A Cage doesn't fare as well as much of the album, perhaps because it's not really much of a song.

Unlike Neil Young's Philadelphia (from the same movie that won an Oscar for Springsteen) and Lou Reed's later stage favourite The Power of the Heart, that Gabriel delivers as an affectionate love letter.

Regina Spektor's Apres Moi might be revealed as pretentious. But Stephen Merritt's smartass The Book of Love provides welcome light relief.

Although sombre, Gabriel's initiative is bold and innovative. He's done both the songs and their writers a great service. HHHII

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