CD Review of Big Blue Ball by Various Artists
Recommended if you like
Peter Gabriel, World Party,
Afro Celt Sound System
Label
Real World
Various Artists: Big Blue Ball

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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S
olo success was the worst thing that ever happened to Peter Gabriel.

This isn’t to say he didn’t deserve to achieve it – or that he didn’t release some of the most finely crafted, musically adventurous records of the ‘80s – but since shooting into the sales stratosphere with 1986’s So, Gabriel has celebrated his freedom from label interference by crawling deep inside his own bunghole, becoming one of those artists who occasionally releases intriguing statements about whichever project he’s currently working on, makes vague promises about hoping it’s out “soon,” and then fiddles with EQ levels until half of his fans are proud members of the AARP.

Still, you’ve got to respect Gabriel for refusing to squander his fame and fortune in pursuit of ever-higher mounds of moolah – instead, he’s spent the last 20 years running a label dedicated to the release of music from around the globe, and has used his Real World Studios as an excuse to delve into whatever piece of new technology he can get his hands on. (When the world found out about Gabriel’s involvement in the “WALL-E” soundtrack, it was via Gabriel’s video blog.) And for a guy who took a decade off between his sixth and seventh solo albums, 2008 is shaping up to be quite a busy year – aside from the aforementioned Pixar gig, fans are also being treated to the long-awaited Big Blue Ball.

Even in Gabriel time, this album has been a long time coming. Initially tracked in a series of bursts during 1991, 1992 and 1995, Big Blue Ball has stayed in the womb for over a decade because, in Gabriel’s words, “the tapes were left in a mess.” To that end, producer Stephen Hague was called in to help untangle the sessions, initially shepherded by Gabriel and World Party frontman Karl Wallinger. The idea behind the project – to assemble a group of musicians from all over the world and turn them into one big blue band – was enough to activate Gabriel fans’ salivary glands even before the list of participants started leaking out: Sinead O’Connor, Vernon Reid, Joseph Arthur, Tim Finn, the Holmes Brothers, Jah Wobble…at the very least, it had to be worth hearing, right?

The answer, at long last, is yes. Probably. If you’re a Peter Gabriel fan.

Comprised of 11 tracks – four of which feature some sort of noticeable musical involvement from Gabriel – Big Blue Ball acts as a sort of connector between his post-So solo albums and the various Real World compilations he’s produced from the late ‘80s on, such as Bliss and Plus from US. In its quieter moments, it sounds a lot like Jonathan Elias’ The Prayer Cycle, a multi-lingual choral symphony that featured its own high-profile special guests; conversely, during its more up-tempo tracks, Ball uses many of the same fog-and-glass sonic tricks employed on Gabriel’s Us and Up albums.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, in other words – a situation that isn’t helped by its lack of a musical or narrative thread that could help bind the whole thing together. In the end, for all Hague’s efforts, the album sounds like a compilation of songs that, while all more or less enjoyable, don’t show any real reason for existing side by side. Creating the sort of mash-up that drops the rap-driven “Jijy” next to Wallinger’s lovely title track might be fun for Gabriel, and it might even say some important things about a world in which information is shared with historic disregard for borders or speed limits – but it doesn’t make for terribly compelling listening.

Still – as with most of his projects, no matter how flawed – you can’t help feeling like Gabriel’s ambition is rooted in something real. Even if he works at a snail’s pace, and even if, more often than not, he merely succeeds in teasing the edges of his goals, the simple fact that he has goals is enough to keep things interesting. Frustrating, but interesting.

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