Review: The Scurvy Pirates

Rating: ★★★½☆
The Scurvy Pirates

Genre: Traditional and original pirate shanteys with a modern attitude.
Rating: PG-13
Target Audience: Ages 15 and up

Most pirate bands can be classified – they are either contemporary, experimental, or traditional. But Scurvy Pirates is a bit difficult to pin down. Their musical style is firmly rooted in traditional sea shanties – the instruments and singing would be quite at home aboard ship, or in a dockside tavern. But their raw enthusiasm and creativity show no allegience, and the resulting lyrics cross the map from the odd to the brilliant in a series of songs that old salts WOULD have sung for generations, if only they had thought of it.

The album starts with “Ballad of Mad Tom Bucket” and “Press Gang” – both wonderfully piratey songs that don’t take themselves too seriously. They introduce the Scurvy Pirate’s style of rough, unpolished acts, complete with piratey voices and traditional instruments. But don’t mistake my use of the word “rough” as meaning lacking in any respect – as with the costumes in Pirates of the Caribbean, getting that “weathered” feeling is an art in itself, and far more suited to piracy than are crisp tunes and polished vocals. This is the sort music you’d envision being made by any group of drunken pirates – except actual drunken pirates never actually sound this good (believe me, I’ve tried it.) “Tom Bucket” is easy to sway along to, complete with catchy “yo hos” as it introduces the band and its unique character. “Press Gang” is more energized and sillier, as listeners are treated to a tale about clubbing bar patrons upside the head.

“Fight for Your Right to Plunder” is a parody of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right to Party,” which sounds exactly as you would expect (very fun, in fact.) Following next is “Billy Cutlass”, an oh-so-slightly modernized version of the 1845 “Bill Cutlass, the Pirate Rover.” More serious than most of the other songs on the album, it would sound perfectly traditional if it weren’t for the wryly piratey attitude of the band, which exudes skullduggery with every word and each squeeze of the accordian.

“Stowaway” is a brilliant piece of comedy that’s at its best when at its most heartfelt. A love song to a stoway passenger discovered in the bilge, it tells of the difficulties of choosing between duty and passion. The Scurvy Pirates then continue their irreverence, albeit with the traditional “Crayfish,” a song that’s more meant for first-time than repeat listeners, as much of its appeal is in the misleading lyrics, which would be far dirtier if they actually rhymed.

There are many fun songs on this album, and the Scurvy Pirates do a wonderful job of making music that sounds deceptively simple and down-to-earth with many of their tracks. But their next piece, “Worse Things Than Dying,” merits special mention. Sometimes a band like Scurvy Pirates, whose performance is as much about goofing off as it is playing the music, accidentally lets its guard down and does something serious. And once in a while they really mess up and write a song which reveals that beneath the jokes and antics is some semblance of genius. On this album, this is that song. Just as rough and earthy as their other pieces, “Worse Things Than Dying” is nonetheless touching and soulful as they sing about the fate that awaits a dying pirate in the afterlife. True, great pirate songs can be found now and then with many contemporary pirate bands – but very few could so easily slip from a modern pub into a tavern from the age of sail.

With “Cape of Good Hope”, the Scurvy Pirates depart from their usual vocal work to do a catchy instrumental piece. Flutes, drums, and what I imagine to be a cow bell all make for a perfectly piratey ditty, if a bit shrill at moments. “Tuney Fish,” however, is just plain fun. Hardly a traditional piece, I find myself singing it when making sandwiches, and it drives my son nuts. “Tuney tuney tuney fish! They are great, they’re plain delish! They’re the fish for which I’m wishin’, let’s all go out tuneyfishin’.”

Next in line is “Porn Bouy.” Seeking to dispel the theory that homosexuality was commonly practiced amongst sailors, Scurvy Pirates offer this scholarly piece of historical research into the existence of a magical bouy that provides pornography to lonely pirates throughout the seas. Well researched, and it rhymes.

They don’t sing it with an accent, but “Whiskey & Rum” sounds Irish just the same. A perfect pub tune, it’s catchy and a definite mug-raiser: “If you’re not a man, then a man you’ll become. Drinkin’ rum with your whiskey, then whiskey then rum!”

The Scurvy Pirates album would be at home in any collection that appreciates both traditional and contemporary pirate music, so long as you don’t mind seeing the lines between the two smudged a bit (personally, I welcome it!) Scurvy Pirates clearly have a great appreciation for traditional shanties, but ultimately they won’t be stopped from doing their own thing. Fortunately for us, their “own thing” seems to be very, very piratey.