It turns out that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Part III is coming to a theater near you just in time for Christmas) is not just a vessel for the marketing of merchandise and amusement parks; no, these guys actually dig pirates! Well, Disney's actual Department of Commercial Domination probably has a different idea, but the fact is that director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp are way into pirate culture, so much so that they thought it would be super-cool to put an album together of old pirate songs. These are the dreams that only teenagers and filthy-rich entertainers dare waste precious time on. I mean, seriously: an album of pirate songs? The rest of us are busy trying to figure out if Geico really would provide cheaper car insurance, but not these guys.
Gore Verbinski: It's so cool to hang out here in the Caribbean, just making a movie, eating free food, trolling eBay for pirate stuff.
Johnny Depp: True dat. You know, Gore, I just can't get that old sea chantey out of my head -- you know, "what do we do with a drunken sailor..."
Gore: That's a great one. I wish we had a whole album of those -- what did you call them?
Johnny: Chanteys. Sea chanteys. And -- hey -- why don't we just make our own album?
Gore: You mean, sing them ourselves? Aren't we busy enough making this movie?
[they look at each other, each hanging in a hammock overlooking a crystalline lagoon, with a tropical drink in hand and laugh]
Johnny: We'll hire someone to put it together. We'll just be the "Executive" Producers.
Gore: Ooh, I love being Executive Producer -- you don't have to actually do anything, but you get a lot of credit! But who could we hire...
Who you gonna call? Hal Willner! Hal is the world's go-to guy when it comes to producing off-the-wall concept albums starring all the coolest musicians you can think of. Did you even know this job existed? They didn't list it in the Career Choices manual at my high school. With a Rolodex that runs from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Marianne Faithfull (and way beyond), Willner just calls a bunch of great artists and says (for example), "Hey, I'm putting together an album of cover versions of old Disney songs... want to do one?" and somehow both Sun Ra and James Taylor say, "sure!" That's right: Sun Ra and James Taylor both appear on Willner's fantastic album, Stay Awake. Ra reinterpreted the "Pink Elephant" song from Fantasia, and Taylor did a characteristically tender version of "Second Star to the Right" from Peter Pan. There's a terrific cover of "Heigh-Ho!" originally performed by the Seven Dwarfs but redone here by Tom Waits. After listening to his gravelly voice belt out the marching tune, one begins to see its influence in Waits's later, louder songs, such as "Filipino Box Spring Hog" from Mule Variations (1999). Or is that a Kurt Weill influence? Hmm... perhaps Weill was himself influenced by "Heigh-Ho!" -- they came out around at the same time...
These are the thoughts that occur to you as you listen to any of Willner's productions. Of course he helmed his own Kurt Weill cover album, Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, featuring Waits, Faithfull, Lou Reed, and even Sting. Which brings us to (you could really play a great version of 6 Degrees of Separation in the Music Industry by linking everyone to Hal Willner) Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, just released this fall. Sting gets down and dirtier than anytime in recent memory on the rousing "Blood Red Roses," while Bryan Ferry -- Bryan Ferry! -- sounds like he might actually have rumpled his suit while performing "Lowlands Low" with the trilling, almost comically so, Antony -- of Antony and the Johnsons (sorry Antony fans, but he does kind of sound Monty Python-esque, doesn't he?).
The big surprise of Rogue's Gallery is that the whole thing doesn't just sound like one long Pogues album -- and they're not on here anyway. Most of the songs are actually quite slow, sad, and mournful tunes, like Richard Thompson's version of "Mingulay Boat Song," a lovely ode to a vanished Scottish island culture, or Lucinda Williams's "Bonnie Portmore," which reminded me of the John Prine classic, "Angel of Montgomery" in its tragic sensibility.
It's just another fabulous Hal Willner album. They're always worth a listen. Hal was one of Jeff Buckley's early champions, he somehow managed to create a posthumous Terry Southern -- Terry "Doctor Strangelove" Southern! -- album, and he has Bono on speed dial. Now wouldn't you like that job?