Various Artists: Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys
There’s a geek factor in the assemblage here: a combination of the person who bites the heads off of chickens at the carnival and the one who really, really knows computers.
You might remember Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, that 2006 anthology of bawdy and bloody tunes compiled by Hal Wilner at Johnny Depp’s request while the actor starred in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man‘s Chest. Well this double-CD,Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, is the sequel. It’s not as raunchy as the first, or as bloody in its details, but it still has many ribald and gory moments. Or as Wilner himself put it, this one is "not as much about torture, sodomy, and death." But the compilation has its share of sinister tunes full of deviant sexuality and dark desires. It also has songs of work, longing, and weirdness.
The compilation works because of the mix of styles and concerns. Like a fine mixtape made by a friend, you never know what you are going to hear next except that it’s going to be good. In this case, it was created by that freak-folk friend who snorts when laughing and doodles intricate designs within designs on his or her book covers. There’s a geek factor in the assemblage here: a combination of the person who bites the heads off of chickens at the carnival and the one who really, really knows computers. That’s right, there’s even electronica here replete with drum machines: Todd Rundgren’s "Rolling Down to Old Maui" serves as a case in point. The traditional whaling song takes on a whole new coloration in Rundgren’s hands, but presumably whaling boats possess new electronic gimcracks as well and sailors today waiting to board hang out at the disco with the girls. The songs here aren’t fussy recreations of the past. They provide new interpretations of old material.
Although there are some more traditional offerings, such as Marc Almond’s take on "Ship in Distress," complete with concertina. Almond tells the story straight and lets his emotion-drenched voice take on the weight of the drama. But most of the 36 tracks go for the strange. The more normal sounding songs serve as a contrast, and ironically come off as odd as a result.
Of course, the bizarre is what one would expect of an anthology that includes contributions by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention ("Handsome Cabin Boy"), Mary Margaret O’Hara ("Then Said the Captain to Me"), Robyn Hitchcock ("Sam’s Gone Away"), and Macy Gray ("Off to Sea Once More"), not to mention the peculiar pairings of artists such as Tom Waits and Keith Richards ("Shenandoah"), Michael Stipe and Courtney Love ("Rio Grande"), Patti Smith and Johnny Depp ("The Mermaid"), and Iggy Pop with A Hawk and a Hawksaw ("Asshole Rules the Navy"). As this list indicates, the contributors are a veritable line-up of the extraordinary gathered together to pay homage to the songs of the sea, although one could legitimately ask what tunes such as "Shenandoah" have to do with sailors.
Pointing out highlights from an anthology of the queer and curious is a peculiar task as there are so many. Katey Red & Big Freddia with the Akron/Family’s infectious sissy bounce "Sally Racket", Beth Orton’s hauntingly barren "River Come Down", the rhythmic sermonizing of Ricky Jay reciting "The Sermon of Noah and his Ark" are about as different as one can imagine, but they share a wonderful ability to transport listeners into other worlds. The variety of the compilation’s themes and styles never let one get bored -- especially as they sing about everything from "The Lure of the Tropics" (Dr. John) to "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" (Kembra Phaler with Antony, Joseph Arthur, and Foetus) with attitude and panache.
There’s not a bad cut on the packed compilation: disc one is almost 72 minutes long while disc two is over 68 minutes. The fullness adds a hallucinatory aura to the production and makes one philosophize, like the way one feels when looking out at the ocean. The vast scale of it makes one look inward in response. For those unable to get to the sea, listening to this disc will serve as a fine substitute.