Those familiar with the first Rogue’s Gallery issued back in 2006 might approach news of a follow-up collection, Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, with a mixture of delight and apprehension. This curious enterprise, the brainchild of Pirates of the Caribbean team — specifically, Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and producer Hal Willner — brings the light of day to largely traditional songs of the sea that otherwise might have remained in Davy Jones’ locker. The performers lend a whole new meaning to that familiar title, Various Artists, as the project employs a truly disparate array of talent from the high profile to downright obscure, to provide their personal takes on these songs.
OK, so the apostrophe is missing this time and they still can’t spell shanties but is the new record worth a splice of the mainbrace? With 36 songs and spoken word pieces spread over two discs, it’s easy to find many you want to hear over and over, and a few for which one listen might suffice.
Looking at the credits, you might expect the pivotal song to be Tom Waits and Keith Richards who combine on the homage to the mighty Missouri, “Shenandoah”. Richards, much less piratical than you might expect, contributes some boozy harmonies and sparsely mellow guitar. Waits’ vocal is an acquired taste and, though you can’t deny the sincerity, here seems almost a self-parody and you yearn for Paul Robeson.
Iggy Pop briefly amuses with his bar room balladry on “Asshole Rules the Navy” while “Leaving of Liverpool” is sung by Shane MacGowan exactly as you might expect with thigh-slapping guitar solos from messrs Depp & Verbinski. Before you conclude that most singers have been passed the mic at the end of a drinking contest, the first half has some delightful oddities from lesser knowns, notably the admirable Kenny Wollesen & The Himalayas Marching Band who breath magic into every sinew of the charmingly repetitive “Bear Away”. Robin Holcomb & Jessica Kenny turn in a hauntingly atmospheric version of “Ye Mariners All” with splendid, often freeform instrumentation. Former Soft Boy, Robyn Hitchcock, is hail and hearty on “Sam’s Gone Away” and Sean Lennon beguiles on “Row Bullies Row” but the real standout song is “River Come Down” which sees Beth Orton on sparkling, soulful form.
On the second disc, the odd couple that is Michael Stipe and Courtney Love convince us that they could have made a career in folk-rock with an atmospheric rendition of “Rio Grande”, aided by some nicely overdriven Richard Thompson-style electric guitar. Less convincingly, Todd Rundgren recalls hi-energy disco on “Rolling Down to Old Maui” while Katey Red & Big Freedia commit homicide with “Sally Racket”. Broken Social Scene feature twice; nimbly filling out behind Dan Zanes’ lazy drawl on “Jack Tar on Shore” though, left to their own, stretching out “Wild Goose” till rigor mortis sets in. Overall the second disc is patchier than the first but Richard Thompson supported by the admirable Jack Shit hits the black spot on “General Taylor” and Petra Haden is sweetly uplifting on the tuneful “Sunshine Life for Me”. The otherworldly prize is given to Kembra Phaler on the startling “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” with Antony Hegarty adding some inimitable harmonies.
Though I confess to being a fan of Robert Newton meself and I don’t know Jack Shit, Son of Rogues Gallery merits a couple of hours of anyone’s time. Just don’t expect to put it all on repeat. The tracks you do will be worth it.
Essential Tracks: “River Come Down”, “Bear Away”, and “Rio Grande”