While the marketing insanity for Pirates of the Caribbean II continues to echo in the popular mindset, this whopping yet seemingly near-underground document -- born from the minds of the film's director, Gore Verbinski, his pal Johnny Depp, and Anti-Epitaph label boss (and Verbinski buddy) Brett Gurewitz -- may end up as a lasting contribution to the populace at large without them even knowing it. Surely it lends its own weighty blend of blood, sweat, and tears to the folkloric literature of sea shanties and pirate songs, though cranks like Alan Lomax and John Jacob Niles are certainly turning over in their graves if they have any extraterrestrial knowledge of its existence. Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, produced by Hal Willner, has gathered up the usual outrageous, inspired, ambitious, sometimes ridiculously grouped musicians to record folksongs of the sea, from the call-and-response grunting and occasionally obscene work songs sung by men from the old seas who worked the riggings in rhythm, to pirates who needed (much as modern-day rappers) to boast of their exploits. Willner gathered together some 75 songs and went to Seattle to hang with Bill Frisell to discuss the project. Frisell gathered the Akron Family, Wayne Horvitz, and Eyvind Kang to be a kind of house band there, and netted a slew of songs from the likes of Robin Holcomb (whose reading of "Dead Horse" is one of the most beautiful and haunting things here); the notorious Baby Gramps (whose version of "Cape Cod Girls" starts everything off with a harrumph), and a slew of others. He later went to Los Angeles, New York, London, Dublin, and god knows where else, finding roots musicians to be an ad hoc house band. In London, Warren Ellis of Dirty Three and Bad Seeds fame and Kate St. John formed a unit with some other folks, and in L.A. it was Jack Shit and friends. But this is the back of the story, actually.
The singers include everybody from pop blowhards like Sting and Bono, who do respectable jobs (well, not Bono: he blows it big-time on "A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates" because he can't help himself), to wildmen like David Thomas (of Pere Ubu) and Nick Cave; from modern-day darlings like Lucinda Williams and Rufus Wainwright (who sings with his mom, Kate McGarrigle while his cranky old dad Loudon Wainwright III makes an appearance for two cuts); to strange adventurers like Mark Anthony Thompson, Jarvis Cocker, and Bob Neuwirth; from bona fide rock eccentrics like Antony, Jolie Holland, Bryan Ferry, Van Dyke Parks, Stan Ridgway, and Gavin Friday (in Ireland anyway) to rock legends (Ferry fits here, too) like Lou Reed); to indie rock songwriting iconoclasts Joseph Arthur and Ed Harcourt; bona fide recluses like Mary Margaret O'Hara; true traditionalists like John C. Reilly, Martin Carthy and family (Eliza Carthy on her own, too), and Richard and Teddy Thompson. Oh yeah, and one true counterculture icon: Ralph Steadman!
There's a whale load of 43 cuts spread out over two discs in a handsome package. It's bound to lose money unless some uptight Amerikanskis get adventurous real quick and buy it to put on their iPods to play on their sailboats and yachts, or if NPR does a feature on it for the yups (that would make both Ishmael and Captain Ahab proud). There are many standouts here, but those that really shake up the decks are Eliza Carthy's "Rolling Sea," Bryan Ferry's two contributions -- the entirely creepy "The Cruel Ship's Captain," and his duet with Antony "Lowlands Low" -- Nick Cave's "Pinery Boy" and his hilariously evil "Fire Down Below," Gavin Friday's "Baltimore Whores," Richard Thompson's reverential and lonesome "Mingualy Boat Song," Martin Carthy and family's "Hog-Eye Man," O'Hara's stirring "The Cry of Man," Cocker's wondrously cannibalistic "A Drop of Nelson's Blood," and Mark Anthony Thompson's hunted "Haul Away Joe." This doesn't mean there are other things here that will appeal to the masses, or even to the few. Let's face it, Baby Gramps, as great as he is, is only gonna make a few hearts (those that are diseased, most likely, or warped, most surely) flutter. Williams is good, but Parks is better, and Joseph Arthur can be downright scary when he wants to be: remember Tom Waits' contribution to another Willner project, Stay Awake: Interpretations of Vintage Disney Films? There you have it.
There is something here for most, and something to piss off everyone else. The real deal is this: by bringing up these old relics -- some of which took considerable research to find -- Willner has done a service to folk culture by presenting it in such an oddball, loose, and fun way to the masses. Perhaps that rarefied world of folk culture fascists (who will remain unnamed here) may take umbrage, but consider those who will actually get turned on by this music and research the old songs themselves. Certainly that may be a choice few; for the rest, there is untold knowledge to be gained for random conversation, filling in the "personal weird stuff" file in their brains, and perhaps, if urbane enough, may spark a discussion for a moment or so until the next really "big" thing distracts them. Any way you hoist it, Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys is a treasure trove of the beautiful, the weird, the arcane, and the dangerous right out there on the record store shelves for anyone with a few dollars to spare to be awed or amused by.