How could a proper sailor turn a cold shoulder to a collection of various artists that boasts names like Tom Waits and Keith Richards, Frank Zappa, Dr. John, Iggy Pop, Macy Gray, Courtney Love, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith and orchestral duo Nick Cave and Warren Ellis? Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, the (overly) generous second offering produced by Hal Willner, contains 36 songs of classic maritime tunes and spans over 140 minutes. Face the music or walk the plank, ye scoundrels.
So let’s get a couple things out of the way. This is the second brainchild from Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski and producer Hal Willner—those who brought us Pirates of the Caribbean—teaching us that if you do something successfully once, you might as well do it over and over again. But fear not. Rogues fairs far better at a second pass than the Pirates films did. What we have here is an album so dense and diverse that there is something for everybody and everything for nobody. There are your token throwaways that come with most albums associated with various artists (see “Rolling Down to Old Maui” and “Sally Racket”), but there is also a plentiful harvest of booty here. And oh, me fellow Jack-tars, what sweet treasure it is.
Some listens are more casual than others and, often, the songs with depth and introspection offer the most memorable moments. There are a handful of drunken bar songs that lose their intrigue after a first listen (i.e. Iggy Pop’s “Asshole Rules the Navy”), but an overwhelming majority of these tracks have some lasting power. It takes a little patience getting to Beth Orton’s “River Come Down,” where one is struck with the realization this offering might be more diverse than what meets the pirate’s (good) eye.
On this compilation that never quits, the obvious standout tracks include instantly gratifying tunes by Ivan Neville and Macy Gray, somber and sweet ones by The Americans, Broken Social Scene and Beth Orton, and the sultry “Ye Mariners All” by Robin Holcomb and Jessica Kenny. Other highlights include Frank Zappa’s previously unheard ’60s gem, “Handsome Cabin Boy,” the spoken word of “The Chantey of Noah and His Ark” by Rick Jay, the optimism in “Sunshine Life for Me” by Petra Haden with Lenny Pickett and, of course, Tom Waits and Keith Richards’ haunting ode, “Shenandoah.”
Only a rum-soaked fool would see universal appeal in the Richards–Waits number—it certainly is an acquired taste—but the minimalism of Richards’ guitar work and Waits’ signature growl provide a startling rendition of the famous Virginia river ode. “Pirate Jenny” is another famous maritime classic re-contextualized by Shilpa Ray with the help of none other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Ray’s half-sung, half-talked lyricism feels wonderfully off-putting against that signature Cave and Ellis’ orchestral drone that gave films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition their elegant pacing.
Generally, the tone works for an album called Son of Rogues Gallery, which is a play on the old-fashioned “rogues gallery,” a criminal photo collection used by the law to finger suspects in a crime. With an assortment of big names and unknowns, the results are varied in quality and approach, resulting in a diverse collection filled with more than its fair share of throwaways and gems. You likely won’t spin this one from start to finish more than once, but the tracks that aren’t used to feed the fish will find a welcome place in the captain’s quarterdeck.