People love pirates. They prove it by stampeding to see the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, by chomping down on their R’s (arrrrrghs!) on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Piratemania is so widespread, in fact, that a backlash seems inevitable. How much longer before pirates join Pet Rocks, Beanie Babies, and the “You can call me Ray” dude in the pantheon of inexplicable fads? But even if the plank-walkers are about to jump the shark, Rogue’s Gallery is good enough to survive on its own merits. Although the 43-track double CD was conceived by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, who starred in and directed both Pirates of the Caribbean movies, respectively, it doesn’t seem like a base attempt to coax a bit more booty into the franchise’s swollen coffers. For starters, if Depp, Verbinski, and the marketing jackals who surely dog their every step just wanted to make a few quick bucks before the trend fizzled out, they would have hired someone besides Hal Willner to make it happen.
On the cover of Rogue’s Gallery, the line “A Hal Willner Production” appears before the title, and this imprimatur signifies two things: (1) The CD will be weird and gorgeous, and (2) the CD will be a critical smash and a commercial flop. Never mind that Sting and Bono are on it; most of the featured performers are artists that the average Pirates of the Caribbean fan has never heard of and probably wouldn’t like anyway. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that anyone besides a few crusty musicologists will recognize the source material, most of which predates recording technology. The songs are little mysteries, cobbled together by scholarly intuition and good old-fashioned guesswork; behind every fact in the excellent liner notes lurk a dozen unanswerable questions. At their best, the performances deepen this mystery, remind the listener of the unfathomable pastness of the past.
Disk one begins with the inimitable Baby Gramps, whose lascivious croak sounds like a bullfrog being electrocuted or some drunk kid singing into a fan; his rendition of the chantey “Cape Cod Girls” is loose, lovely, and odd, sweetened by the luminous leads of guitarist Bill Frisell and the earnest harmonies of Akron/Family. Richard Thompson’s oaken baritone and sparkling fretwork are an excellent fit for “Mingulay Boat Song,” and Bryan Ferry transforms an old broadside ballad into an unlikely art song, his elegant, ravaged quiver a perfect match for the Dirty Three’s damaged chamber music. Augmented by a tin whistle and didgeridoo, Marc Anthony Thompson (Chocolate Genius) brings a hint of gospel to “Haul Away Joe,” a mournful quality that undercuts the lusty lyrics. Other highlights include tracks by Teddy Thompson (Richard’s son); Eliza Carthy (and assorted members of her illustrious clan); Rufus Wainwright and his mother, Kate McGarrigle; and, if you can believe it, Sting, whose version of the Napoleonic-era “Blood Red Roses” may qualify as his most restrained vocal performance and, to my mind, anyway, his best yet.
The second disc is equally strong. From David Thomas’ deranged and queasy “What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor” to Jolie Holland’s lazy and luxuriant “The Grey Funnel Line,” from Loudon Wainwright III’s unspeakably nasty “Good Ship Venus” (think hymens fried in semen and gang-raped canines) to Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley’s slowcore stunner “A Drop of Nelson’s Blood,” the tracks careen from the bawdy to the bathetic and back again. Willner isn’t playing the usual compiler’s game, reviving a moribund genre by siphoning off the strangeness. Like the sea that they celebrate, these songs are too deep to plumb.
Contact René Spencer Saller at firstname.lastname@example.org