Willner is the onetime Saturday Night Live musical director who for more than 20 years has produced the most remarkable tribute records — collections of far-flung hipsters performing songs by Kurt Weill, Charlie Mingus, and so on. This time around, the subject is sea chanteys and pirate ballads. Rogue’s Gallery (Anti) overflows with piss and vinegar, pairing everyone from Nick Cave to actor John C. Reilly with tunes dating back centuries. Where else will you hear Loudon Wainwright III sing-songing this immortal diss: “He wasn’t fit / to shovel shit / from one ship to another”?
Willner used to take his time between grand projects, but he’s been busy lately. In addition to the upcoming Harry Smith Project (due in late October from Shout Factory), in which Beck, Sonic Youth, and others will reinterpret landmarks of American folk, he organized the concert in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (Verve Forecast), which hits cinemas this week and already has a soundtrack out.
I’m Your Man is one of the most satisfying tributes in years — thanks not only to some brilliant interpretations of great material, but to the reappearance of performers on multiple tracks, lending the disc a consistent, homey feel. It’s a bit like a family reunion, not least because key singers belong to a couple of familiar clans. A number hail from what we’ll call the “Willner company” (Nick Cave and Beth Orton, for instance), who also worked on Rogue’s or the Smith set; Loudon Wainwright doesn’t pop up, but every songwriter he sired (Martha and Rufus Wainwright) or married (Kate McGarrigle, singing with sister Anna) does.
So does Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, for a toe-tapping take on Cohen’s embittered “The Future.” The song so grabbed me that I had to track down Separate Ways (Verve Forecast), Thompson’s recent sophomore album. The Wainwright kids make a showing as guests here as well, and there’s a tiny bit of Rufus’s nasal wail in Thompson’s voice; the songs bear no resemblance, though — rootsy and sometimes rocking, they may talk about depression and frustration, but their beats suggest he isn’t going to lay down and die anytime soon.
You can’t say that with certainty about The Handsome Family, another Willner participant with a new disc out. Their Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top) is gorgeous in a downtrodden, suicide-watch sort of way. There are clues, though, that it’s all a lovely put-on: “After We Shot The Grizzly” is an over-the-top tale of plane-crash survivors, plucked out like like something you’d sing to your sweetheart at an ice-cream social.
Back to tributes, good and bad: I’m all in favor of anything celebrating that master of French disco-lechery, Serge Gainsbourg, but the star-studded new Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited (Verve Forecast) fails to capture his special essence, and doesn’t flow together all that well, either. Then again, you do get Marianne Faithfull doing a nice “Lola Rastaquouere” with Sly & Robbie.
Also underwhelming is Bande Á Part, by Luaka Bop’s Nouvelle Vague. With their second album, the group proves early suspicions that there’s little going on beyond the novelty of having New Wave hits redone with a slight Brazilian flavor. Sure, it’s perfectly listenable and great for coffee shops — especially if you’re looking for excuses to make small talk with the barista — but that’s about it. One minor exception: on Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the affected breathiness of Phoebe Tolmer’s vocal is actually appropriate, conjuring visions of Dracula’s wraithlike love slaves.
Late-breaking news: Right before deadline, an envelope arrived with an advance copy of Why the Hell Not: The Songs of Kinky Friedman (due September 26 on Sustain Records). With next Tuesday’s Last of the Jewish Cowboys, that makes two releases in a month: I’m not sure who this Kinky fellow is, or why there should be so much interest in him this fall, but for what it’s worth, this forthcoming record offers a nice Lyle Lovett take on a tune called “Sold American” and other tracks by Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakum, and the Robison/Willis Clan.