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Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel 2 [Aka: Scratch] CD (album) cover

PETER GABRIEL 2 [AKA: SCRATCH]

Peter Gabriel

 

Crossover Prog

3.01 | 583 ratings

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SeeHatfield
3 stars "Looking for movement within the haze?"

Peter Gabriel's second solo album starts out strong but then fizzles. From the anthemic opener, "On the Air," to the resigned and cynical closer, "Home Sweet Home," is quite a fall. That fall is a symptom of the irresolution that haunts this album, which for Gabriel is something of a transitional patchwork. Robert Fripp's production is sympathetic but perhaps not tough enough to get at what is potentially good here, and the record wavers. The good parts are pretty damn good, though.

By the late seventies, both Gabriel and Fripp were eager to shake off their reps as ringleaders of what we now know as the first generation of "prog." Both were alienated from the genre; both had misgivings about the corporatizing of progressive music and the distance between artist and audience that marked stadium rock. Fripp and Gabriel were leery of being rock "stars" and sympathized with the gust of new energy that was punk rock. Gabriel's second album is not exactly punk (he would never be stripped down and spontaneous enough for that) but is punk-adjacent, affecting an anti-corporate, balls-out attitude and serving up lots of hard, guitar-driven rock. Recorded mostly in Holland, but then ironed out in New York, it is very much a slice of late-70s, NYC-oriented, postpunk art rock, the kind of record that could rub elbows with Television or the early Talking Heads.

Notably, this album is one of Fripp's early production credits outside of King Crimson (and Fripp & Eno). It came after his work on Daryl Hall's solo album Sacred Songs (1977, though unreleased until 1980) and before Fripp's own solo album Exposure (1979) and his work with the Roches (1979; 1982). It also came before Fripp's new wave / proto-math rock quartet, the League of Gentlemen (1980-81), a project that offered much rawer, spikier music. The avant-punk sympathies notable on Exposure come out on this Gabriel album occasionally, but nothing here rocks out as jaggedly as the League. The closest contenders for the punk ethos here would be the two opening cuts, "On the Air" and "D.I.Y.," both of which scream defiance. But they're rather different songs.

"On the Air" is a persona song, sung by a recurrent Gabriel character, "Mozo," who seems to be both a pirate radio operator and social outcast. Its verse is spiked by power chords with a bit of a fuzzed, glammed-out feel. It's a right scorcher and strong opener, though the lyric's exact meaning (perhaps unsurprisingly for Gabriel) is more obscure than it seems on first listen, like something drawn out of a private mythology. To me, Mozo sounds as if he could be a character from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and lyrically the song could be a Lamb outtake (this during a period when Gabriel and his band still performed the Lamb's title song, or "Back in N.Y.C.," as encores). This song segues right into "D.I.Y.," which is a tribute to the punk ethos ("You want some control, you've got to keep it small") in the form of a chant, with the title phrase, "DIY, DIY," repeating over and over against an insistent, chopping rhythm -- a kind of minimalist art song that wouldn't have been out of place on Brian Eno's first couple of solo albums. The sound isn't punk, but the sentiment is meant to be. Of course, during this period Gabriel and his touring band shaved their heads and adopted a sort of punk look (despite the mad chops and intimidating gear onstage at a Gabriel show).

The truth is, the album is too slick for punk, and Gabriel's best nods to the punk ethos would come in another year or two when he abandoned the idea of sounding punk and instead allowed himself to sound alien (on his breakthrough third album, 1980). Reportedly, Fripp pushed Gabriel through the recording process in record time (Gabriel recalls that Fripp "was very keen to try speeding up my recording process, as many people have been since and failed, but he got closest to it"). But the record does not sound spontaneous; it sounds, as usual, workshoppy and dense with ideas. The electric guitars are not raw but compressed and sleek, and several tracks boast beds of percolating synth by keyboardist Larry Fast. Most of the players, including guitarist Sid McGinnis (a Barry Manilow sideman later known for the Late Show with David Letterman) and of course bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta (both Gabriel mainstays), were sought-after session musicians. Keyboardists Tony (Bayeté) Cochran, an accomplished jazz player and composer, and Roy Bittan, of E Street Band fame, are no slouches either, and Timmy (Sax Man) Cappello blows up a storm on two tracks (reminding me of nothing so much as the opening of a Saturday Night Live show in the Howard Shore / Paul Shaffer era). The musicianship is diamond-sharp, even though the sound of the record is a bit of a haze. Although Gabriel often seems to be rebelling against the extravagant production of his first solo album (produced by Bob Ezrin, 1977), and there are moments of bracing austerity ("Mother of Violence," "Indigo"), this is not a spare or minimalist record.

The first side of the album is far stronger than the second, with not only the two opening salvos but also the fragile, haunting meditation "Mother of Violence," a pared-down song co-written by Gabriel's then-wife Jill and anchored by McGinnis's acoustic and Bittan's piano (grounding the track much as Bittan does for Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River," for example). Plus, the first side ends with the number that fascinates me most, "White Shadow," a surreal, imagistic song that pits an Orientalist riff (à la "Kashmir") against lyrics that seem to reflect, as on The Lamb, Gabriel's fascination with American things ("In God we trust," "All wrapped to go like Kentucky Fried"). It's not the lyric that gets me, though it's evasive and worth thinking about. It's just the sound, in particular the steady, almost plodding 4/4, enlivened by Levin's propulsive bass and offset by a droning, minor-key synth figure whose descending chords seem to work with and against the beat. That, and the decorative, almost fanfaric synth licks, reinforce a (again) vaguely Arabian or Middle Eastern feel. I'm afraid I lack the musical theory vocabulary to explain this well (should I be saying something about the Phrygian mode here? I dunno, but maybe other folks on PA can clue me in?). But the effect is circling, hypnotic, potentially endless (reportedly, the original vinyl release of the album went into a nonstop groove at the end of this side). What makes all this sublime is Fripp's solo at the end, a series of ascending lines played against the cycling chords, somehow frenzied and yet (because Fripp!) precise and cunning. It's great. (My mental list of great guitar solos includes several by Fripp on other people's records.)

Sadly, the second side of this album feels inconsistent and irresolute, like a series of genre sketches, and there's no build or payoff at the end. The rockers "Animal Magic" and "Perspective" are expertly played but unexceptional (twists on what Gabriel had already done with "Modern Love," on his previous album). "Exposure," a Gabriel/Fripp experiment later redone on Fripp's solo album, is a spooky groove against a backdrop of keening Frippertronics, graced by a loping Levin bass part, wonderfully chunky and heavy. It's less a song than a piece, if you know what I mean, though Gabriel's vocal is spirited and raw. "Flotsam and Jetsam" is almost an abstract for a song: a lovely promise of something undelivered. The closer, "Home Sweet Home," is theatrically pitiful, cheaply ironic, and crass: a loser's narrative in song, the polar opposite of the way Gabriel handles a similar theme in the later (and better) "Don't Give Up." It's a weak anchor leg. Though Gabriel's vocal builds to an interesting tormented weirdness, the feeling comes shrink-wrapped in bald sarcasm.

In general, Side 2 of the album feels schizoid, with a couple of downbeat, depressive ballads being most personal, while the rockers seek to provide ballast but feel a bit programmed. Without Side 2's rockers, the album could be a long, dry stretch, but they don't feel special.

Maybe the worst thing about this album, though, is how muffled and blurry so many of the vocals are. While Gabriel's voice occasionally rides above the mix, often it sounds half-buried, almost strangled. As Eric Tamm notes, the album "sounds like it comes out of a dingy garage." Having recently relistened to Gabriel's first two albums back to back (in what I assume to be remastered, optimal form), I have to say that Bob Ezrin seemed to push Gabriel vocally, really making him own the songs, whereas Fripp's production, though it allows Gabriel more room to experiment, doesn't haul the singer out into the open. The total effect is that some of the most interesting writing on the album has to work its way out of a layer of gauze.

Still, there is half an excellent album here. And what would come next for Gabriel would be a real kick in the slats: something new, arresting, and not generic at all.

SeeHatfield | 3/5 |

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