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Peter Gabriel scales back on 'Scratch My Back'

In this Jan. 21, 2010 file photo, recording

In this Jan. 21, 2010 file photo, recording artist Peter Gabriel poses for a portrait in New York. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Christensen

The idea is brilliant. For "Scratch My Back" (RealWorld/EMI), Peter Gabriel decided to tackle an impressive list of songs - from David Bowie's "Heroes" to Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" - with no guitar or drums, only orchestral instruments.

Not only does this approach show off Gabriel's poignant vocals, but this scaling back lets the songwriting shine. His take on Bon Iver's "Flume" is far more restrained than the original, but just as effective, backed by spare piano and shimmering strings. Gabriel transforms "The Power of the Heart" into a pop standard, adding drama and a wounded beauty that isn't in Lou Reed's original. He does the opposite to Neil Young's "Philadelphia," replacing Young's yearning with a far surer delivery - an interpretive choice that works for him and the song.

VOTE: What is your favorite Peter Gabriel song?

Sometimes, though, Gabriel's interpretive choices undermine the song. He replaces Stephin Merritt's sly attitude with a far more straightforward reading of the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love," crafting it into something that's less clever and almost a little too earnest. He strips away the South African rhythms and the multi-culti bounce from Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," turning it into a wordy piano dirge.

That's a problem that's compounded in Gabriel's version of "Heroes," which loses all its complexities and swagger in return for something stark and pretty.

"Scratch My Back" shows how artists' choices can affect a song. For Gabriel, celebrating his first new album since 2002, it seems those choices have energized him.

PETER GABRIEL

"Scratch My Back"

GRADE B

BOTTOM LINE An orchestral twist on leftfield rock

VOTE: What is your favorite Peter Gabriel song?

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