‘The Mermaid’ by way of Johnny Depp, moonlighting under the sobriquet Jack Shit, rocking out on a Napoleonic ballad. Those three examples encapsulate the uncertain tone of the enterprise. Is this serious musical archaeology (Willner’s diligently researched liner notes make fascinating reading), an excuse for some big names to showboat, or is the whole thing a huge craic?
Willner’s ship lurches between all three ports. In general, the folkies fare best. Lucinda Williams, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Jolie Holland all sing movingly to sparse accompaniments. The father and son teams of Richard and Teddy Thompson and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright likewise capture the yearning and at times tragic quality of a dangerous sea-faring life spent far from home.
By comparison, the rock names struggle to find the right mood. Sting hams in outlandish Geordie tones as he hauls up the sails on ‘Blood Red Roses’.