Suzanne Vega and Peter Gabriel Release Cover Albums

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Peter Gabriel by Nadav Kandar

The TV shows American Idol and Glee have made cover songs a greater focal point for the music business than ever, even including songwriting-publishing’s peak years in the early recording era. Of course, the histrionics of the Idol contestants and the high school kids of Glee can’t match a real singer with a great song.

This week, two of my favorite artists released albums that are cover-based: Suzanne Vega‘s reunion with her early material entitled “Close Up Vol 1, Love Songs” and Peter Gabriel‘s “Scratch My Back,” where he tastefully mixes old and new songs by everyone from Arcade Fire to David Bowie. I’d always wished Bryan Ferry would have done that with the bands he influenced, like Spandau Ballet.

It has happened before, many times, such as Muddy Waters’ “Fathers and Sons,” a cool album where old and young met on a road-tested set of material in the mid 60s after the British Invasion brought attention to him.

Probably too quiet and heavy for prime time tv, but not for! Would he come out in a strongman outfit like when he did “Steam” on the Grammys? Or dressed as a flower like in early Genesis? Or with tribal make-up? This is one of the best performers in the history of rock music, and I only mention American Idol to show what a joke it is compared to a real musician and what they could do in a similar situation.

“My Body is a Cage” by Peter Gabriel

Does anyone remember the genre formerly known as “Vocals”? Some of these artists would have been Jane Olivor; Frank Sinatra; Tony Bennett; Nancy Wilson; Ella Fitzgerald, etc. These Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega, released albums that belong in that in that section (if it still exists)! A few years ago, Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs’ “Under the Covers” series hit a great variety of songs from the 60s and 70s (like a K Tel album!) and even Johnny Cash famously did Soundgarden and NIN songs (with incredible results). Nice that Gabriel mentioned the Man in Black in his Billboard Interview.

Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch My Back” includes a few classic rock songs but also his take on more recent music as well. I recommend anyone who is into performing to listen to the great, melodramatic singing on this album, backed mostly by strings and keyboards. The choice of songs is intriguing as hell, with the Talking Heads‘ “Listening Wind,” sung from the perspective of a suicide bomber, being typical of the “joints” he pulled out to do. Another Eno song that appears is Bowie’s “Heroes,” but I’d say without Robert Fripp and Bowie’s own anthemic delivery, it’s hard to accept this version.

“Close Up Vol 1, Love Songs” gleans gems from every era of Suzanne Vega’s excellent career, and although it follows a greatest hits album by just a few years, these are newly recorded and relatively stripped-down versions. Most every one of her A&M albums sported some glossy high-powered production and it’s welcome to hear this music in a more acoustic/direct style. Included here is “Caramel,” a great song to begin with, even better the second time around!

“Caramel” by Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega explained to the New Yorker (bizarre illustration guys) that “Close Up Vol 1, Love Songs” is part of a new indie-self released re-records of her entire catalog, reorganized into four volumes. Given the economics of the music biz, maybe this is her version of Neil Young’s Archive, except eliminating the wasteful packaging, the high price and the major label. Shouldn’t matter that much and over time, I anticipate the new situation will give Suzanne Vega a whole new level of success, sans schmaltzy attempts to build on “Luka”‘s success. She has a lot of excellent songs worth reconsidering, especially “Caramel”!

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