Whatever traumas he suffered during his stint as Disney Japan’s resident minstrel “Cap’n Sandy,” Alex McMurray did not misspend his stay. With its second recording of sea shanties, McMurray’s Valparaiso Men’s Chorus secures its place as New Orleans’ leading ensemble of drunken men. That they sing beautifully vaults them over the ample competition.
In an appropriate downtown migration, we’ve moved recording locations, from the Mermaid Lounge in 2004 to the Saturn Bar in 2010. The chorus is a little larger, the backing musicians include many of the same McMurray regulars (Washboard Chaz, Jonathan Freilich, Matt Perrine, Rick Trolsen), but the aural weirdness evolves. Combining the raucous band with a bloody navy on vocals, “John Kanaka” and “The Liverpool Judies” stoke riotous thoughts of hooligan second lines played on whiskey bottles and hornpipes.
Funny as this enterprise remains, a recurring darkness staves off camp. McMurray’s Celtic gifts for stubborn humor and teary regret are perfect for songs like “Hanging Johnny.” You can see the wobbly sailor sputtering atop a rough table, his fellows encouraging him to forgive himself. Particularly haunting are the unadorned cuts “Paddy Doyle’s Boots” and “Haul Away Joe,” where all you have are surly voices and the space of boozy inhales. A tuba groans like barge wood, a hi-hat mops the deck.
Still, we’re mostly in boozy threats territory, best navigated with many throats and musicians. The Chorus produces a soundtrack for benders, which can vary in time and tenor. McMurray and company deserve credit for maintaining their balance through so many brawls and dances in this strange port.