Fire Note Says: Sometimes a sequel is better than the original — but not this time.
Album Review: As Ralphie declared, hunched over his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and discovering the secret message was nothing more than an ad for Ovaltine: “son of a bitch.” Hopes were high; hopes were dashed. And that’s today’s theme.
In 2006, Anti Records released Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys. And now comes Son of Rogues Gallery, the follow-up (yes, the apostrophe disappeared). Both double album collections were produced by Hal Willner, the genius behind wonderful collections such as The Harry Smith Project (2006) and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988). He was also the shepherd behind both volumes of The Carl Stalling Project. (If you don’t know what this is, do yourself a favor and find out.) But here’s the problem: while Rogue’s Gallery was all gold with the occasional show of silver, the follow-up is all bronze with the occasional show of silver. The original was, in the course of forty-three tracks of all kinds, fucked up only by Lou Reed’s shitty track—which even out-shitted Bono’s contribution. Everyone else was absolutely sterling.
So what is it with the new collection? Ivan Neville doesn’t quite do it here. Macy Gray shouldn’t be here. Ed Harcourt should not be here. Shilpa Ray, of course, can’t be Nina Simone—but nevertheless, she shouldn’t have touched “Pirate Jenny.” Ed Pastorini shouldn’t gone gone a cappella. Marc Almond’s effort falls flat. Todd Rundgren offers an abortion of an idea of what suits this collection. And Anjelica Huston doesn’t do well here though her track would fit some Broadway show quite well. And what do I mean by “shouldn’t be here”? I mean the tracks are no good to their purpose. It’s not that these compilations can’t accommodate some diversity—but a story is a story and you don’t plop a romantic comedy in the middle of a murder-thriller.
What does work? Beth Orton gives something a bit more interesting than her recent work. Tom Waits gives a satisfying growl. The Americans deliver a straight version of “Sweet and Low” and let the darkness find its corners without fighting sentiment. The track after it, “Ye Mariners All,” has Robin Holcomb and Jessica Kenny doing the same to good effect: letting darkness find its form without forcing it—and delivering effective gut-cut. The same goes for “Jack Tar on Shore” by Dan Zanes and Broken Social Scene. And Kenny Wollesen and the Himalayas Marching Band give us “Bear Away”: it’s wild and woolly and worth it. Ricky Jay, a man among men, gives a solid, Joe Frankish monologue on “The Chantey of Noah and His Ark.” Petra Haden brings an O Brother Where Art Thou? flavor and solidly so. Sean Lennon (with Jack Shit) gives a fair taste of why his dad would have loved this sort of collection—and the son shows just as well as Dad would have.
Three more highlights: unexpectedly, Iggy Pop (with A Hawk and a Hacksaw) gives us something of what gave the original compilation its weirdness in high dudgeon in “Asshole Rules the Navy.” On “Rio Grande,” Michael Stipe and Courtney Love give us something sustaining. And with “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” Kembra Pfahler (with Antony, Joseph Arthur, and Foetus) gives us big strangeness of the finest order. When you feel a true trickle of weirdness blending the feel of Disneyland, Master and Commander, and Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York, you know you have something singular at hand. But the great and the weird are too few and far between on this new collection. You want an appetizer, this album’s for you. You want a full meal and a flagon of grog, go to the original..
Key Tracks: “Asshole Rules the Navy”, “Bear Away”, “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”
Compilations With Similar Fire: Rogue’s Gallery / The Harry Smith Project / Stay Awake
Rogues Gallery Info Website
-Reviewed by Alan Black (alanblack13.com)