Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Salty Dogs: M. Ward And The Pirates Of Doom



Blood, Sweat And Come: Folk Music Takes No Prisoners

Illustration by Alex Fine

Folk music gets a bad rap, having long ago been relegated to the leafy retreats of crunchy granola ninnies in white socks and Birkenstocks, where its rough-hewn hymnals were gutted by time and the ’60s, and reduced to politically correct acoustica, liberal bromides and impotent protest. What’s missing from most people’s assumptions about folk music is the blood, sweat and come, not to mention the staggering body counts, laments for lost limbs, dead wives, drowned babies and hard rains. And that's just the happy songs.

Velveteen folk-rocker M. Ward is self-schooled in all things past, and smart enough to know those who ignore history are doomed to remix it. A sad-eyed troubadour in the hang-dawg tradition of Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, Ward teases high emotion out of low-key compositions, coloring his records with the sepia-toned crackle and hiss of old rural blues recordings, drifty dustbowl sadness and the submarine murk of vintage echo.

He’s an exceedingly dexterous fingerstyle guitarist and an alchemical interpreter able to transmute shit into gold—check out his transformation of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” from big-’80s pomp to dreamy folkadelia on 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent.

As a songwriter, Ward spreads his wings wider with every outing, but until now his compositions have yet to transcend sensibility. They’re all vibe and swoon—arresting in the moment, but oddly forgettable beyond the bewitching atmospherics. Ward’s yet to write anything that would be half as special in the hands of another artist who didn’t share his rich old-soul vocal timbre or knack for reverb.

No matter. Sometimes beauty is its own reward. Ward’s fourth LP—in addition to curating last year’s I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey or producing Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat—the wishfully titled Post-War, drops this week. It’s pretty, twittering music you usually have to see stars and little birdies to hear. This is the sound of 21st-century porch music, like a Woody Guthrie song about flying saucers or watching an old flickering silent movie on your iPod.

The darkest corner of folk is arguably the pirate song, the wheezing besotted sea chanteys barked by brutal men in cruel circumstance. Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has revived popular interest in the swashbuckling exploits of the OGs of the seven seas.

Enter Hal Willner, a Philadelphia native and musical coordinator of Saturday Night Live since 1981. Willner has made a career of corralling high-cred contemporary talent to reanimate old, weird musics in ambitiously themed tribute albums. For the pirate-themed Rogue’s Gallery, Willner assembled an impressive roster of A-list Jolly Rogers—Bono, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, a surprisingly nonannoying Sting—along with semiregular cast of not-ready-for-prime-time players such as Van Dyke Parks, Nick Cave, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Kate McGarrigle (along with Loudon and Rufus Wainwright).

Lending an air of unpredictability to a 43-song double disc are wild cards such as Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, the actor John C. Reilly and Hunter S. Thompson illustrator (and no stranger to high-seas decadence) Ralph Steadman. The resulting Rogue’s Gallery is a sprawling, artsy song cycle, as unpredictable as a raging noreaster, weirder than 15 men on a dead man’s chest, with a heaping helping of rum, sodomy and the lash.

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