Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back (EMI)
For decades the concept album, alongside patchouli, kaftans and beedis, has been left to rot in a drawer marked ‘1960s aberrations’. Of late, together with prog rock, the concept of an album devoted to one single subject or idea has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Peter Gabriel, co-founder of Genesis, was present at the cradle of both prog rock and the concept album, and he is still there – with remarkable results. Scratch My Back is a collection of cover versions. The vocals are Gabriel’s, the music is delivered by a 54-piece symphony orchestra. Stop – don’t run away! Scratch My Back is miles away from the bombastic and revoltingly vapid violin versions of chart hits certain symphony orchestras feel the need to foist on us. Gabriel, sixty in February, has collaborated with contemporary composer John Metcalfe to craft a series of arrangements that betray traces of their influences – Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Ralph Vaughan Williams – without ever descending into pastiche. A tremendous and melancholy version of Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ carries echoes of Yorkshire brass-band music. Talking Heads’s ‘Listening Wind’ (one of Gabriel’s ten favourite songs of all time, apparently) is a shimmering apparition of subtly syncopated violins and French horns. No less gripping are the reinterpretations of ‘Street Spirit’ (Radiohead), ‘Mirror Ball’ (Elbow) or even David Bowie’s ode to yearning, ‘Heroes’. In return, all artists covered here will pick one Gabriel song each and render it in their own style (all except Bowie, that is – Brian Eno, co-writer of ‘Heroes’, has agreed to step into the gap). Their results will be gathered on another album called, ahem, I’ll Scratch Yours. Who said the double concept album was dead?
Cucu Diamantes, Cuculand (Wrasse)
New York outfit Yerba Buena have been doing the rounds with their spicy brand of funk, hip-hop, Cuban grooves, Knitting Factory cool and soca for almost a decade. Cucu Diamantes is their singer, and this is her first solo album. It is more theatrical and brassy than the groove-driven Yerbas, and all the more gripping for it.
Jackie Leven, Gothic Road (Cooking Vinyl)
Jackie Leven is a giant Scot with a penchant for woollen socks and a voice like Ben Nevis crossed with Johnny Cash. His output is prodigious, the quality sometimes uneven, but this, very nearly his 30th album in half as many years, is a calm and warmly textured joy from beginning to end. Titles like ‘Absolutely Joan Crawford (With a Bit of Tilda Swinton on the Side)’ or ‘Song for Bass Guitar and Death’ give an indication of the wit at work here.
Amparo Sanchez, Tucson, Habana (Wrasse)
Granada-born Amparo Sanchez was the leader of Spanish group Amparanoia, and she is a sometime collaborator with Manu Chao. After the storm of often Cuban dance rhythms whipped up by her former band, this, her first solo album, is a much more calm and reflective collection of songs. Recorded in Havana with Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, as well as a couple of Cuban trumpeters, this is a gorgeous record.
Rainbow Arabia, Kabukimono (Manimal Vinyl/Cargo)
Californian electronica experimentalists Danny and Tiffany Preston specialise in radical non-authenticity, picking and mixing the elements that make up their magpie brand of world music from absolutely anywhere. Augustus Pablo- style reggae, Bollywood singing, dub, Arabic synth-strings, house beats and steel drums all feature – sometimes in the same song. Huge fun.