Various Artists—SON OF ROGUES GALLERY: PIRATE BALLADS, SEA SONGS & CHANTEYS

71fspa1nril-_sl1299_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.

Advertisements

VARIOUS ARTISTS (ED RUSH, TRACE & NICO) – Torque (1997)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Consider this my contractual obligations review. Quite honestly I was unable to sit through this album even once. I’m sure there are people out there who can appreciate this and therefore write something meaningful about it, but I cannot. What immediately hits you in the face is a very aggressive, driving drum beat. Everything else is pretty much is a soundscape accompanying this drumbeat, and this drumbeat, with little significant difference, dominates each and every track. The soundscapes do have some interesting elements, but ultimately it’s all about that drumbeat. I don’t like it and don’t care to hear it, so that pretty much negates any other attribute of this music. Not for me, sorry!

VARIOUS ARTISTS (Compiled by DAVID TOOP) – Ocean of Sound (1996)

ASSIGNED BY THE HOST: Great Compilation Albums
Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Something sounds while you walk by. It will keep sounding even when you are not there, and your mind will have been attracted to something else.

Or maybe not. Maybe your mind is still remembering and playing with what you heard earlier.

In the classical music paradigm, a musical piece was something that developed in time. It went to places. It changed, evolved, and in the apex of the symphonic language’s growth in the 19th century, even direct repetition was frowned upon, because it made no sense to embark on a journey to get back where one started. It was an object, and a narrative, the soundtrack of an era where progress was king and the end of knowledge was theorized to be near.

David Toop’s book “Ocean of Sound”, for which this compilation servers as a soundtrack of sorts, deals with the opposite of that. The lazy description would be that it deals with ambient music and similar, but actually it talks about a kind of music that transcends genres; a music that seems to be in a sort of stasis. And so we find here ambient, yes, but also classical music, jazz (free and fusion), musique concrète,treated field recordings (many by Toop himself), rock, electronica… and well known names such as Les Baxter, Holger Czukay, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis (both at their most electric), My Bloody Valentine, Harold Budd, John Cage, and of course Brian Eno.

The best thing about this compilation is the sequencing. Every track flows seamlessly into the next (so much that in some cases an element that wasn’t there before, such as a vocal, prompted me to see that, yes, it was another track, and on a more attentive listening it was apparent that actually the entire instrumentation was different yet I had not noticed). As minimalist music gives way to recordings of chimes, as boat horns and wildlife get juxtaposed with experimental jazz, we understand how time works here. We are not witnessing a journey. We are taking a walk. Our surroundings change – but not with any sense of inevitability. The music is not the same as a minute ago, but in the same way that it changed like this, it could have changed any other way, and yet there’s not a lack of cohesion.

A good summation could be the Ornette Coleman track included. It’s not directed anywhere per se. But even if we could say it’s directionless, it’s not aimless. It’s beautiful music that simply “is”. But if you are preparing yourself to be awash in a sea of rhythmic fluidity and aural massage, the tracklist is subversive since the start, as the album begins with King Tubby’s dub reggae – by no means a kind of music lacking in pulse – and settles for a while in a groove provided by Herbie Hancock first and Aphex Twin later before moving to stiller places just when you thought you were in the coolest club ever. Notice however how the stasis Toop mentioned is still there – all three songs sound like they are moving but in reality they are not actually going anywhere.

The inclusion of Debussy’s “Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune” is a given since Toop sees him as the genesis of 20th century music, and it’s interesting that in the company of the other tracks, this composition, which at its time was revolutionary in that it seemed to paint a still picture – none of the “telling a story” pretensions of Lisztian tone poems – sounds like having a lot of movement in comparison. It works a bit less with the included Velvet Underground song, which I think has too much of a traditional dynamic to fit. In that regard I think the My Bloody Valentine selection works much better. It’s also curious to hear the well-known “Fire” theme from the Beach Boys’ “Smile” here – actually in its Smiley Smile “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” guise, no doubt because it was the only official version of it at the time of the compilation – and noticing how well it works.

By now I think it’s clear that I like the album. That I recommend the album. Maybe you did not make an impression from my words. It’s all right – just go listen to it if you can. After all, to paraphrase Brian Eno’s manifesto, much of this music can be as ignorable as it is interesting. As background noise I far prefer it to TV. But do listen.

Summing up will make me sound like I was getting somewhere, which defeats the entire philosophy of the sonic ocean.

So I just keep on walking.