Review by Adrian Evans-Burke
Assigned by Alejandro Muñoz G
Ahoy matey, there be troubled waters ahead. At least that was my first thought upon glancing upon this behemoth. An entire album of sea chanties? Nay, an entire DOUBLE album, running 26 tracks, with many stretching past the four minute mark. Even if you are somewhat partial to folksongs, let alone carry some affinity for the odd chanty (even if you deign to spell it with an ‘S’ instead like a landlubber), this is a lot to ask of your ears, for a number of reasons. First, folk-in-general, along with its many subgenres, relies upon an ample if not incredibly diverse library of time-tested, well worn tunes that invite the performer to fully inhabit them. These tales of love and lost and ghosts and greed run the gambit from funny and clever to regretful and melancholy, but unless they are performed by a particular talent, the emotions can fall flat and come off instead like folk-by-numbers or open mic night. With 26 tracks and a host of players from folk-rock veterans to odd classic rockers and a few actors for good measure, this hit-and-miss risk is on full display, though likely less so than similar blues or folk compilations I’ve heard.
Another issue is that, unless you own (or long to own) a boat yourself, or have obsessively played Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, sea chanties in particular are a tough sell. These are intentionally rhythmic, repetitive, if sometimes witty songs meant to accompany redundant, long, and thankless labor at sea over miles and miles featureless ocean. Great for bonding with your mates and passing the monotonous day (at least until the scurvy takes ye!), not so much for listening at the gym or on the commute. Thankfully, while there are plenty of chanties with pirate swagger and rum-soaked tears, there are also so straight-folk ballads, and other sea-themed ditties, as well as whatever the hell Todd Rundgren contributed.
So yes, one one hand Todd makes the track his own, with all his glittery production straight out of a robot disco tavern in Nassau, but god if ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ really sticks out like Lady Gaga parody track and just doesn’t fit here. Same for Frank Zappa’s ‘Wedding Dress Song/Handsome Cabin Boy’, though in Frank’s defense, this was one of the few tracks not specifically recorded for this compilation. In this context, it seems Johnny Depp and whomever else worked on this figured that Zappa was kinda pirate-ish, so they should include SOMETHING of his, even if this one also feels way out of place. There are few other true offenders, however. Most of this stuff is great! Indeed, tracks succeed or fail based upon the charisma of the performer. When we’re dealing with faceless indie darlings like Broken Social Scene, whatever is happening in the weird mambo party with Katey Red on ‘Sally Racket’, or even singers who SHOULD work in this setting but just don’t deliver (Iggy Pop), the result is pleasant, maybe even humorous (if the sodomy in Pop’s ‘Asshole Rules the Navy’ is still humorous in 2018); but ultimately forgettable.
While there are plenty of fair-to-good tracks, its the songs where the performers truly inhabit the songs, or bring something different and surprising to the table, that make this compilation worthwhile. When thinking “pirate music”, my first thoughts were the usual suspects: Shane MacGowan, Tom Waits, Nick Cave. Unsurprisingly, the first two are on here, they’re great, with MacGowan’s swaggering ‘Leaving of Liverpool’ coming off like a Pogues classic, and Waits being his grimmy yet mournful, last-call best on ‘Shenandoah’ — a song that recalls rolling Virginia hills more than barnacles and seafoam, but still. Nick Cave makes an appearance too, but as an understated supporting role, ceeding the spotlight to Shilpa Ray on ‘Pirate Jenny’, who effortly conjures up harbor fog and whalebone corsets.
Meanwhile, my ears tricked me on my first playthrough, as I swore that Marianne Faithfull sang twice. And though she does make her stately presence (and chain smoking croon) felt on the swaying ‘Flandyke Shore’ — halfway through the somewhat weaker second disc — it is in fact the legendary Patti Smith who provides one of my favorite tracks, ‘The Mermaid,’ a chiming yet world-weary, sunbathed song that, at under 3 minutes, could have easily gone on for another 3. And though that second disc does sag a bit in the middle, the mighty Richard Thompson does arrive at just the point where my attention is drifting, kicking the bar stool out from under the scallywags and showing them how it’s done on ‘General Taylor’.
And while there are too many bloody tracks to go through, I’d like to tip my cap to another favorite — the surprising effective ‘Mr. Stormalong’ by one of the lesser (to me anyway) Neville brothers: Ivan Neville. This track is pure New Orleans sweat-stained piano and sazerac. Given New Orleans’ own history of roustabouts, rakes, and caribbean pirates, the track is a fitting inclusion on an album that spends most of its (OH GOD SO LONG) running time in rather safe, traditional (if professional and entertaining) territory. Ultimately it’s thumbs up from me, though I’d probably mix down my favorite 12-15 tracks into a single disc. That said, there’s something here for everyone, be they a cabin boys, a purser, a lady pirate, or a midshipman. And when the song is done well, it’s like unearthing a bit of treasure buried by some of your favorite artists.