Some shiny doubloons, but a few Black Spots too
Riding the wave of the summer blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean II, famed producer Hal Willner has dug up a treasure chest of obscure and traditional songs of the sea, and press-ganged a motley crew of rock and folk’s grizzled seadogs to sing them. They all roister and doister spiritedly. Fiddles saw, concertinas trill, and banjos charmingly clatter. Yet few of the performances wholly satisfy: despite the wealth of different voices and instruments, there’s an overall homogeneity to the sound that rather dampens things. Cap’n Willner runs a tight ship, and even his wildest buccaneers are curiously well drilled, smelling of the cologned admiral’s quarters rather than the briney poopdeck. The curiously prissy delivery Loudon Wainwright III gives the filthy ditty ‘Good Ship Venus’ is a case in point, and it leaves scurvy mutineers such as Nick Cave and David Thomas sounding more than a little hammy.
The tracks that pare things down are the most succesful; the ones that stick to voices alone fare best of all. Most notably, Martin Carthy, John C Reilly and Richard Thompson rollick out their songs without any artifice, letting a good tune speak for itself. Amazingly, Sting acquits himself well, if a little overenthusiastically, on ‘Blood Red Roses’. He sings in a Geordie baritone instead of his usual constipated falsetto, and is bolstered by the rude harmonies of the Carthy family; the song has a real intimacy and the group bonhomie sounds genuine. To reassure us that the world is indeed round and we haven’t sailed off it, his other track, ‘Shallow Brown’, sounds like a B-side reject from Graceland-era Paul Simon, while Bono chest-beats over a soggy pallet of new age atmospherics on his song. So the wry Jarvis Cocker is especially welcome on ‘A Drop Of Nelson’s Blood’, repeatedly asserting that ‘A plate of Irish Stew wouldn’t do us any harm’ in a hilarious Sheffield deadpan – just what the ship’s doctor ordered.
Matthew Milton / Songlines # 40