In his thoughtful liner notes to Rogue's Gallery, producer Hal Willner describes the mess of lucky chances, last-minute changes, and serendipitous moments that eventually led to this collection of sea chanteys and other maritime songs as interpreted by contemporary artists. As Willner tells it, whoever was available simply gathered at recording sessions in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Dublin and London and, swept up in the gravity of the source material, gave the performances that range across this two-disc, 43-song set. This is how guitarist and throat-singing legend Baby Gramps came to record the chantey "Cape Cod Girls" with Bill Frisell, violinist Eyvind Kang and pastoral beard-folk sensations Akron/Family, or how cabbage-headed actor John C. Reilly found himself in an L.A. studio recording a version of the rueful Napoleonic ballad "My Son John" ("Now I got no legs at all/They were both shot away by a cannonball") with Loudon Wainwright III, or how the distinct voices of Bryan Ferry and Antony came to weave in and out of one another over Kate St. John's oboe and the violin of Warren Ellis (Dirty Three) on "Lowlands Low." It's nice to think of these performances as happy accidents, and some of them probably were. But the personnel on Rogue's Gallery are really all part of an extended musicians' community, from Willner's connections to Frisell and Kang, to Rufus Wainwright (Loudon's son) harmonizing with his mother Kate McGarrigle on a song called "Lowlands Away," or Nick Cave appearing out of the darkness to seethe his way through a foul-mouthed and burbling, steam-addled version of "Fire Down Below." (As you might imagine, venereal disease was pretty common on those creaky old ships.) The surprising thing about Rogue's Gallery is that Tom Waits doesn't appear, as the label, material and most of the participants are in or near his circle.
As for the performances, the collection settles quickly into an ebb and flow of randy couplets, odes to rum and ruin, heart-stomping sadness, archaic nautical-speak and subjects specific to sailors of the era, like whether or not to eat the cabin boy when the rations on ship run out ("Little Boy Billee"). The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, with plenty of fiddle, accordion and woodwinds, as well as the ruckus raised by stomping feet and gangs of backing vocalists, resetting how many of these songs would have been sung at sea. And while there are standout performances from Jolie Holland ("Grey Funnel Line"), a solo Akron/Family ("One Spring Morning") and Jarvis Cocker (who's backed by Richard Hawley's guitar on the dirge "A Drop of Nelson's Blood"), it's the collaborative spirit of Rogue's Gallery and its history lessons each song is accompanied by a blurb of backstory that make the set worth it. For a more straightforward celebration of the chantey tradition, all you have to do is dive into the Smithsonian Folkways catalog, starting with the work of Ewan MacColl. Then again, Folkways doesn't have crusty old Lou Reed, who on this set somehow turns the traditional "Leave Her Johnny" into an outtake from Street Hassle.
Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].