various artists,
Rogue's Gallery
(Anti, 2006)

Pirates and sailors in the days of tall, wooden ships are unparalleled in their ability to capture the imagination with tales of action and adventure on the high seas. The wealth of music that has grown out of that ancient lifestyle is wide and deep, much like the ocean they sailed upon, and there are innumerable recordings of those songs in a variety of traditional and modern styles.

Rogue's Gallery is a 2-CD set that draws on that treasure. Born in the minds of director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp during the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean II, it includes 43 tracks of music and, it must be noted, an excellent set of liner notes explaining the backgrounds of both the project and the songs.

The project was launched with the notion that sea chanteys are an early form of punk music and, while I'm not sure I agree with that analysis, it certainly drove the selection of tracks. It was also recorded on the fly -- producer Hal Willner explains in his notes how musicians would congregate at a studio, "playing a bunch of the sea chanteys -- picking one -- learning it and and recording it all within a few hours." It's a miracle, he admits, that it was finished by deadline, especially with far more material than was actually needed.

Unfortunately, the rushed nature of the project seems apparent to a listener with any familiarity with these songs and this style. Willner is up front in admitting his ignorance of the genre when he started; many of the musicians seem to share it.

Don't get me wrong, I often enjoy nontraditional reinventions of old music; nothing could be more boring than hearing the same song performed in exactly the same way over and over and over again. But a basic understanding of the source material is still useful before recording, and in many cases here that is lacking. Jolly songs are performed dolefully, serious songs are sung with a wink and a grin, the rhythms of basic call-and-response work songs are irregular, and far too often the words are incomprehensible. Damn it, some of these pieces are just badly done, plain and simple.

But perhaps, just perhaps, that's part of this album's charm. Seeking out the abhorrent tracks became something of a game for me -- not that they were hard to find -- and I took a certain amount of delight in their badness, while it was a challenge to find and enjoy those rare gems.

Contributing musicians include Baby Gramps, Richard Thompson, Nick Cave, Loudon Wainwright III, Bryan Ferry, Sting, Rufus Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Bono, Lucinda Williams, Andrea Corr, Lou Reed and plenty more.

review by
Tom Knapp

16 August 2008

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