postheadericon Executioner’s Last Songs Pt. 1 – Reviews

From Rolling Stone:
Death Songs Vs. Death Penalty
Langford, Earle, Case fight capital punishment with murder ballads
The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, who consist of Jon Langford and Steve Goulding of the Mekons/Waco Brothers and former Bottle Rocket Tom Ray, will release their third album, The Executioner’s Last Songs, on March 19th on Bloodshot Records. As with their previous tributes to Bob Wills and Johnny Cash, the Cosmonauts have enlisted a rotating roster of guest vocalists, and this time out the material is a collection of songs of murder, execution and mob justice. And it’s delivered with a wink, as partial proceeds will benefit Artists Against the Death Penalty and the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
“I’m just really horrified by it,” the Welsh-born Chicago native Langford says of the death penalty. “There was a big movement up here in Illinois, and it’s one of the first states to issue a moratorium. The inequities of the system were so glaring. I have a son, a four-year-old boy, and finally felt I should exercise my voice in American politics as much as I can. Previously, people have said to me, ‘You’re not from here. You should shut your mouth.’ I just feel like it’s quite compelling for me, because it’s not something that exists in Europe.”
Despite the moratorium issued by Governor George H. Ryan, the cause remains urgent in Illinois, as his term ends next year. “He’s made himself fairly unpopular by following his conscience rather than his party’s rules,” Langford says. Langford also credits a Chicago attorney named Dick Cunningham with being a driving force behind the album. Cunningham, who was killed last year, was largely responsible in the push for the moratorium and freed a number of wrongly convicted men from Death Row. “I wanted to do something for him,” Langford says. “I’ve been involved in several kind of lefty causes, but I never really worked with people who actually got things changed. This guy’s a hero. He got in on the inside and rolled his sleeves up and pushed for what he did. He’s not a kind of Weatherman [laughs], blowing a few things up in the Sixties and hiding for twenty years. This is another way to look at political action. I think there’s so many unsung heroes who’ve given up on the romantic angle and have actually enacted change.”
For Langford, the project started as a one-off gig in Chicago. “I fell afoul, when we did the original benefit, of some humorless lefties who didn’t really get it,” he says. “But it was encouraging to me that some of the guys who had been on Death Row came, and they totally got it [laughs]. They thought it was hys
terical. It’s gallows humor, I guess. But it made sense to me and everybody else who played.” Langford went into the project with about a dozen songs he wanted to include, but for the most part, he left selections up to the singers. The result is a range that leans heavily on old Appalachian murder/death songs including traditional “Tom Dooley” (covered by Steve Earle) and “Knoxville Girl” (the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks) bluegrass father Bill Monroe’s “Walls of Time” (Paul Burch) and the old-time country of Hank Williams and Fred Rose’s “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (Rosie Flores). The collection also taps Seventies country, including covers of Charlie Pride’s “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” and even art-punk, the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” which was selected after the Cosmonauts decided to jettison Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat,” after a definitive recent reading of the song by Johnny Cash.
Langford and a number of the vocalists will perform some of the songs at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Conference in March. And having whittled thirty tracks down to eighteen for The Executioner’s Last Songs, he already has a head start on a second volume, which he does plan to release. Mark Eitzel and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner are among those on board for the next one. “I don’t want to say anyone who hasn’t done their bit yet in case they don’t,” Langford says. “Suddenly they’ll have a blinding vision that the death penalty is marvelous and they don’t want anything to do with it [laughs]. But, essentially, I tried to think of this one as a bluegrassy, country sort of thing and then the next volume will be a bit darker a bit more electric.”
ANDREW DANSBY
(January 29, 2002)
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From Counterpunch
March 13, 2002
Musicians Against the Death Penalty
The Executioner’s Last Songs
By Jeffrey St. Clair

That pipsqueak Bono announced to the world (everything he says these days seems to have the weight of a Papal Encyclical) in a recent interview in Time magazine that he’s given up on music as a political force. From here on out Bono says he’s going to use the persuasive aura of his own personality to wipe out Third World debt. After all his are the lips that smooched Jesse Helms and the hands that caressed Orin Hatch. Is it too soon to say good luck and good riddance?
Bono’s self-directed exit (was he ever really there to begin with?) leaves the field open to artists who still believe that music has the ability not only to stir the soul but change the heart and minds of people willing to listen. One such artist is Jon Langford, who has been around longer than Bono and has never given up on the power of popular music to reach people and inspire them toward social change.
Langford is a leader of the great British punk band The Mekons, a group of Leeds University leftist and anarchists, who, along with The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Gang of Four, produced some of the most politically-charged music of the late seventies and 1980s. In fact, I’m not sure I could have survived the eighties without the knowledge that a new record by the Mekons could be expected every six months or so. The Mekons made records that sounded just as pissed off as I felt about the Thatcherites and Reaganites and the liberal wimps who stood by as the rightwing goons turned the government into a thermo-nuclear subsidiary of the transnational corporations. And, of course, the Mekons were a raucous counterpunch to the kind of musical fare we were being spoon-fed through the eighties (led by the narcissistic sputum of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Duran Duran), as the corporatization of rock was in full-bloom.
The Mekons may never have acquired the international following of the other bands, but they never sold out either. The Mekons made music their way: confrontational, experimental and uncompromising. They were versed in Marx, Tzara and Debord, but they also knew their Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and T-Bone Walker. Some of their records were odd, some truly bad, and some, such as Rock n’ Roll, stand with the best music made in those dreadful decades.
While many other punk-influenced bands imploded, died off, retired, or, like U2, morphed into pop autmatons for the big music conglomerates that rule the soundwaves, the Mekons, in their various guises (such as the Waco Boys and Pine Valley Cosmonauts), kept on making their own kind of music. Often a species of punk-country. Usually out of Chicago, once the city that electrified the blues, now an emerging center for neo-roots music.
There is, of course, no more potent symbol of the ultimate authority of the state than the death penalty. And it’s prevalence here offers a peephole into the true character of the American political system, where the execution of prisoners often serves as a kind of obscene offering to the electoral gods. Remember Rickey Ray Rector, the black, brain-damaged inmate Clinton rushed home to put to death in the heat of the 1992 campaign? Thus, it’s scarcely surprising that upon relocating to the US Langford and his cohorts would soon begin to agitate, both musically and politically, for its abolition.
And it’s also apt that when the time came to make a full-blown musical manifesto against the death penalty Langford chose to burrow into the American past to reinterpret old-time music, the music that came out of what Greil Marcus calls the Weird America, the Invisible Republic of cotton field workers and hillbillies, juke joints and charismatic churches.
There was a time when American music was filled with stories of everyday violence, the cruelties of prison life, vigilantism, mob violence and the horrors of execution. The old dialectic of freedom and confinement was at the core of the lyrical content of the regional music that gave birth to rock n’ roll. The blues, bluegrass, mountain ballads, Ur-country-roots music, as the labels market it today–all dealt frequently–even obessively–with these themes that were so much a part of being poor and/or black in America. To a large extent this tradition of American music is only being carried on these days by hip-hop.
So now Langford and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts give us: Executioner’s Last Songs, a collection of 18 songs “of murder, mob law, and cruel, cruel punishment.” The title of this release, from Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records, is at once a play on Norman Mailer’s account of the 1977 killing by the State of Utah of Gary Gilmore (the first execution since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty) and a prophesy of sorts. The band, with help of an amazing collection of like-minded artists, reworks music from the Louvin Brothers, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, Cole Porter, Merle Haggard, the Stanley Brothers and Johnny Cash with the intent, according to Langford, “of consigning them to the realm of myth, memory and history.”
The proceeds from the album will go to the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, which has done unyielding work on behalf of death row inmates over the past few years. In the outside world, this toil is largely thankless, but in 2001 17 people in the state of Illinois alone walked off Death Row, in part due to the project’s tireless efforts.
But let’s be clear. The real movement against the death penalty isn’t about only keeping innocent people from being killed by the state. What rational person (WARNING: Antonin Scalia is NOT a rational person) would not be opposed to the killing of innocents? No. This is about abolition, period.
The rising tide of executions (there have been 763 killings since Gilmore, with more than half of those having been carried out in the last five years) is America’s equivalent of Argentina’s so-called dirty war, where hundreds of souls are carted off to their doom with little hope of appeal. Call them America’s disappeared.
There are now more than 3,700 prisoners on death row, with a new one being added nearly every other day. States, led by the killing machines of Texas and Florida, are putting women, children, the sick and the mentally-ill. Meanwhile, constitutional rights to effective counsel, a jury of your peers (people who oppose the death penalty are not permitted to serve on juries in death penalty cases) and habeas corpus have been gutted.
Executioners’ Last Songs isn’t a No Nukes or We Are the World type of endeavor. It’s a genuine oppositional undertaking. The death penalty remains sickly popular in America and resistance to it is scarely a ticket to career enhancement. Artists who take on this cause in a serious way-such as Springsteen, Steve Earle, and Langford and company-do so at some risk to their livelihood. It’s one thing to attach yourself to a cause like saving the Amazonian rainforest and quite another matter entirely, in this nation at least, to demand that the state should not have the legal or moral right to kill prisoners, even if they have committed unspeakable crimes.
But though the issue is almost unbearably grim, there’s nothing solemn or preachy in this offering, no pious sermonizing or Bono-like preening for the cameras. There is, however, a blistering rant-in all the best senses of that word-by Tony Fitzpatrick. With a nod to Dylan, Fitzpatrick titles his call-to-arms Idiot Whistle: “Politicians love the death penalty because it makes a bunch of candy-asses look like tough guys.”
The music moves through its own stages of grieving and lamentation, puzzlement, revulsion, querulousness and outrage: from the lovely and gifted Neko Case’s elegaic Poor Ellen Smith and the Faulknerian black comedy of Jenny Toomey’s Miss Otis Regrets to The Aluminum Group’s 25 Minutes to Go (a bracing countdown to an execution) and Rick Sherry’s full-throttle version of Don’t Look at the Hanged Man.
The Advert’s 1977 punk classic Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is countryfied by Deano from the Waco Boys’ with help of Sally Timms from the Mekons. The inimitable LA alt-country phenom Rosie Flores sings, with a voice somewhere between Melba Montgomery and Iris Dement, Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of this Place Alive. Steve Earle breathes new life into Tom Dooley, making that old story sound urgent, new and familiar all at the same time. To my mind, Earle is the most compelling American rocker out there today. He’s certainly the most interesting, producing music that just keeps getting better and deeper. Earle’s got a voice that can chill your spine and a guitar-style as raw and accomplished as anything hatched by the great westside Chicago bluesman Hounddog Taylor.
Remember George Bush and Karla Faye Tucker? Lanford and Johnny Dowd do in their song Judgement Day: “God gave her life, but the mighty state of Texas took it away. She’s dead. Gone. To a better place. The governor’s so ashamed he won’t even show his face.Just one thing I want to say: She ain’t the only one facing the Lord on Judgement Day.”
Chicagoan Diane Izzo contributes a defiant version of the sinister ballad, Oh Death. Her exquisitely eroded voice reclaims the old Dock Boggs song from the malign purposes it was put to in the Coen Brothers’ offensive minstrelsy-show of a film, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, where Ralph Stanley’s resigned voice is outrageously rerouted through the mouth of a Klansman.
Last phone calls. Last letters. Last kisses. Last meals. Last songs. Dreams of escape, freedom and commutation. Last prayers to Jesus, Allah, Elvis. Final goodbyes. It’s all here in the songs; the unspeakably cruel circumstances of everyday life on America’s death row.
The CD closes with Paul Burch’s assured version of Walls of Time, a beautiful bluegrass tune penned by Peter Rowan, which became a signature song for Bill Monroe. It’s a kind of ghost story, really, a ghost story that ends on a quavering note of love, reunion and redemption. Executioners’ Last Songs provides an eerie kind of testimony to just how wrong Bono is. The songs are haunting, angry, and, often, funny–the kind of gallows humor that only works when it’s done by those who know what’s really at stake. So take those ridiculous U2 cds down to the used record store, trade them in and recycle the money into something that matters: Executioners Last Songs. And feel good about it. You can make a difference. Music isn’t going to lead the way to radical change (that’s going to take lawyers, organizers, activists, politicians and judges with courage), but it sure as hell can provide the marching tunes. Langford and friends have given us an unexpected message of hope amidst the bleakest of circumstances. Hope through struggle, that is.
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By me (Nobby):
Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family sings about the Knoxville Girl, ‘we all know so well’. He picks up a stick and beats her to death. The song is about hard work: beating, throwing her around and at the end drowing her. The guy has no reason except that he doesn’t want to marry the girl “that he loves so well”. Is this an increase in brutality compared to that guy in Reno? Unlike that one he doesn’t complain when they lead him into prison. Flames of hell are all he can see.
Too me these mountain songs have the strangest lyrics. They are bloody, they show no reason, violence is all around. Are these the right songs to fill a record against death penalty? Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m talking about:
Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts: The Executioner’s Last Songs – Songs of murder, cruelty, and mob-law done to benefit Artists against the Death Penalty for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. While already the first PVC record alreday explored ‘the dark and lonely world of Johnny Cash’, this new one is a much deeper exploration.
Murder is bloody violent, may it be done by a privat person or by the state of Texas. And since the installment of GW Bush as president death penalty has become an issue even more than before, noticed all around the world. I can’t hear the record without argueing from my european point of view. Is this, the state run murder the core of US justice, is it part of the picture or an expression of fundamentalist madness Europe has overcome by now?
I must confess I was surprsed by an email I got a while ago. I had written a review of a Steve Earle show, where he talked about his activities against death penalty. A woman told me that she loves Earle, sees him as a great artist, but on the other hand was strictly opposed to his view on this question. How can one devide a person from everything this person stands for? So maybe it’s these strange contradictions, these black holes in perception that make me wonder about the USA.
So my approach to the record was centered about the lyrics and I have the feeling of hearing about a foreign and strange country still occupied with medieval myths and obsessions.

A few days before I heard the record first I had listened to the first PVC record mentioned above. Not only in comparison to this one from 1995 I hold this to be a major step in the development of Jon Langford’s musical cosmos and recorded work. There’s no flop but several tracks stand out:
‘Oh Death’ is quite diferent to Stanley’s version on the ‘Oh Brother’-compilation, but in no way less impressive. It’s done by Diane Izzo. Steve Earle’s performance of ‘Tom Dooley’ builds a link between the old mountain tune and the present: mandolin and fuzzy guitar side by side. ‘The hangman’s song’ by Puerto Muerto was kind of a surprise to me, a group I had not heard before. It’s a crime to ignore them: they truly deserve deeper investigation and listening. And maybe that’s the strongest point in favor of this record: (To me) unknown artists stand alongside with more popular names and it’s not that the heavier names deserve all the credits and the rest goes along as fillers. So for me personally the record brought some new names along for whom I will look out for in the future.
Jon Langford and Sally Timms’ song is the sweet ‘The plans we made’. It’s another Lonesome Bob tune but much more impressive than his own ‘Pardon Me’. Jonboy’s rolling Welsh ‘r’ and the haunted voice of Sally Timms is quite similar to Sally Timms latest solo record and to their collaboration almost 2 years ago. I don’t know how these accents work out for US ears but I dig them more each year.
The songs are often haunting, some are funny and most of them are accompanied by an incarnation of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts that sounds to be the finest ever. So for all who already thought that the Bob Wills cd was great music: let me tell you that this is one step beyond. And the most promising thing is: there’ll be a vol. 2.

greil marcus wrote:
>From his so-called “real life top 10″:
2) “The Executioner’s Last Songs: Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Consign Songs of Murder, Mob-Law & Cruel, Cruel Punishment to the Realm of Myth, Memory & History to Benefit the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, Volume 1″ (Bloodshot)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Even when they’re for a good cause? Could it be that the finer the cause — and the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project is not only a good cause, it has shocked the state and the nation with its success, which is to say with its proof of the inherent corruption of capital punishment — the worse the tribute album? Steve Earle’s florid “Tom Dooley” is par for his course, but with Neko Case, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family and Dean Schlabowske of the Waco Brothers, how else explain why such imaginative and inventive performers fall so short of the likes of “Knoxville Girl,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” — songs that are in their blood?

From: Village Voice:
Rock&Roll&
by Robert Christgau
Working Professionals Defeat Doom on Two Benefit Comps
Musically, benefit compilations are doomed at conception. Up against the same triple threat as every other collection of new material by multiple contributors—the organizers have to sweet-talk the artists, pray they’ll do their best, and make the inevitable mishmash cohere—do-good comps then have to break through the pall of sanctimony, although most activists are too caught up in their own cause to realize it. Sanctimony is what Chuck Berry was put on earth to save us from. Sanctimony and rock and roll don’t mix. I’m not so sure sanctimony and gospel music mix either.
So when I learned that September 11 had moved the Voice to revive an old management dream, a CD of “love songs to New York” to launch the Village Voice Media oligopoly into music production, I was real glad I’m not music editor. Sure I helped and kibitzed, but to small effect. Baaba Maal’s track on Wish You Were Here: Love Songs for New York (Village Voice), all profits earmarked for the September 11 Fund, began with a call I made, and that was about it. Along with 15 or 20 colleagues, I spent a few hours helping music editor and co-producer Chuck Eddy sort out marginal submissions. Although most of these weren’t even submarginal, two ended up on the CD, and neither knocked me out at the time; I was wrong. Later I lobbied for a Maggie and Suzzie Roche song that didn’t fly; I was right but it doesn’t matter. Wish You Were Here flows so powerfully it’s even impressed Greil Marcus, whose low sanctimony tolerance has put him off almost every such compilation ever issued, including yet another new benefit record that beats the odds—his friend Jon Langford’s Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project CD, The Executioner’s Last Songs (Bloodshot).
Although these records don’t provide a template, much less establish a trend, each works in the same unexpected way. I would have assumed the relevant model to be the tribute album, a closely related subgenre also threatened by piety and inconsistency pitfalls only overcome, if at all, by piling on the talent and going from there. The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers and the greatest tribute or benefit comp record ever, Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter, succeed by loosing first-rate artists on first-rate songwriters and adding motivation and concept—Dylan reconfiguring the folk idea with the Rodgers, AIDS consciousness tweaked by a happy confluence of gay camp and postpunk irony with the Porter. Motivation, or is it luck, is essential—see the star-spangled yet soggy Hank Williams: Timeless. But neither Wish You Were Here nor The Executioner’s Last Songs has many big names at its disposal. With all respect to Cornershop and Andrew W.K., the major draw on the Voice record is Moby, while the ubiquitous Steve Earle headlines on the death penalty disc, the latest credit for Langford’s all-purpose backing band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Yet in each case anonymity is a virtue. Populated by working professionals outdoing themselves rather than luminaries exercising their droit de seigneur, both records leave extra room for their occasions.
In crucial respects, the occasions are dissimilar. The campaign against capital punishment is made to order for rock’s feel-good p.c.—not as squooshy as world hunger or saving the whales, but, like gun control, all too compatible with a sentimental distaste for violence. Like gun control, it makes more sense as policy than as path to enlightenment; even those of us who can readily imagine a polity with the moral right to dispense with sociopaths or a revolutionary situation in which the good guys would need firearms will agree that we’re woefully far from either, hence better off just shielding the poor from switch-pullers and triggermen. But while September 11 also scares up a distaste for violence—I expect that many contributors to Wish You Were Here, specifically Senegal’s Baaba Maal and Egypt’s Hakim, were moved by something of the sort—it evokes much else as well: patriotism and, for New Yorkers, chauvinism, plus such primal stuff as hatred, dread, revenge, and grief. Except for the grief, none of this meshes with feel-good p.c. But it meshes fine with rock and roll, which has gone for the primal since 1955. And the way The Executioner’s Last Songs plays capital punishment renders its rock-inflected take on country music just as good a match.
So the first last song is Brett Sparks intoning the coldest murder ballad in the old-timey canon, “Knoxville Girl,” which ends with the vile killer “wast[ing] his life away” in jail—but not executed. Sentimentalists exit to the rear unless you’re down with sparing such creeps. Then Rosie Flores pulls out the everyday existential despair of Hank Williams’s “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” and Waco Brother Dean Schlabowske transforms the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” from what Marcus once declared a “pure punk notion” into a formally realistic horror story. Some of the covers are more obvious—”Oh Death,” “Tom Dooley,” “Sing Me Back Home”—and not one is definitive, but laid in a row by these irascible postneotraditionalists they say far more about rage, guilt, remorse, retribution, and human orneriness than the inevitable sermon at the end (which has its uses even so). In its own class is “25 Minutes to Go,” the gallows-humor farewell Shel Silverstein wrote for Johnny Cash, swung till it levitates by two guys from the Aluminum Group. Tragically absent is Tom T. Hall’s “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On,” in which a World War II noncombatant shoots up the town that called him a coward and greatly enjoys the fried chicken and baby squash at his last supper.
Yet the standouts aren’t covers—they’re two original topical songs by people I’d never heard of. Chris Ligon’s disingenuous ditty about a nice guy on death row feels like a one-off. Christa Meyer and Tim Kelley’s grisly, understated, apocalyptic, klezmerish “Hangman’s Song,” however, has the mark of committed songwriting—when Meyer lilts “Oh, oh, woe is me/The state has put a date on me,” it’s hard to believe other singers won’t follow. If “Hangman’s Song” isn’t “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On,” here it tops “Sing Me Back Home” and “25 Minutes to Go,” and the occasion, first as inspiration and then as context, is why. Stuck between the wicked murder of “Tom Dooley” and the hopeless murder of “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill),” its categorical rejection of ultimate punishment signifies like Brecht-Weill.
None of the occasional songs on Wish You Were Here have that much aesthetic reach. In fact, having figured half the 18 tracks for direct responses to the disaster, I was surprised to learn that only two completely new songs made the cut: Joseph Arthur’s “Build Back Up” and Loudon Wainwright III’s “No Sure Way.” Instead, people scrambled and recontextualized. On two of the strongest entries, Moe Tucker and Peter Stampfel set new lyrics to old tunes. Ari Upp changed the Cookies’ “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby” into “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About NY,” Afrikaa Bambaataa funked up Melanie’s “Candles in the Rain,” Uri Caine low-bridged Kander-Ebb’s “New York, New York.” And often artists just rummaged through their catalogs for something suitable: actual love songs to New York from outlanders the Mekons and Andrew W.K., a Romanes title from Ukrainian Americans Gogol Bordello that translates “Strong City,” a Cornershop outtake fortuitously entitled “Returning From the Wreckage,” Hakim mournful and Sheila Chandra mystical and Baaba Maal pleading for peace, and Matthew Shipp’s 1998 recording of “Amazing Grace,” along with Moby’s “Memory Gospel” the only previous U.S. release. I’d replace the Chandra with the Roches’ “song for the heroes,” and although I love Slug I can’t hear how the Atmosphere track fits even with Chuck Eddy whispering in my ear. But though you may suspect such a miscellany can only add up to a mess, the occasion, augmented by Chuck’s knack for the segue, holds it together.
Chuck was an early fan of rock en español, which I’ve accused of “kitchen-sink stop-and-go,” and that attraction to the disjunct helps him comprehend the incomprehensible event at hand. Mourning and rage, chauvinism and internationalism, sleepless fear and fierce determination—in this leftish workplace, as in much of the city, all coexisted in the wake of the attack, and Wish You Were Here proves that they’re contradictions only on the surface. “Memory Gospel,” which passed me by on Play: The B Sides, strikes the perfect note of pomo reverence before sliding into Cornershop’s unbowed synth-rock, which sets up the faster rockers that follow—defiant, celebratory, and both. Bambaataa provides the link to an emotionally polyglot global grouping, and Caine leads off a quietly disquieted final section. My favorite touch is pure Chuck—one-upping “Amazing Grace,” an obvious capper, with an industrial assault by local DJ Lenny Dee that had me holding my ears at our listening session. Called “Extreme Terror,” it sticks sanctimony where the sun don’t shine.
Sanctimony is in the ear of the behearer, and no doubt there are fools who will try to reduce the unmeasurablep man-hours and critical acumen that went into this red-white-and-blue cake to the corporate self-service it may or may not accomplish. I say that in all its noise and beauty, its conflicting emotions and culture clash, it represents the New York I’ve loved since the coming of Willie Mays. To quote English heiress, white Rasta, Johnny Rotten in-law, and NY immigrant Ari Upp: “Don’t say nothing bad about my city.” And right now, you’d better watch it when you talk about my paper, too.
From the Boston Phoenix:
Crime and punishment
Country stars Steve Earle and Jon Langford speak out
BY JONATHAN PERRY
As a banjo strikes the first notes of a Louvin Brothers–popularized standard, “Knoxville Girl,” the song opens waltz-time pretty, like music playing at a country-fair dance in summer. “I met a little girl in Knoxville/A town we all know well/And every Sunday evening/Out in her home I ’d dwell,” sings the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks, his sturdy baritone carefully embracing words of courtship before turning cemetery-solemn. “We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town/I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down/She fell down on her bended knee, for mercy she did cry. . . . Don’t kill me here, I’m unprepared to die.”
It becomes grimly apparent — by the next verse, actually — that the narrator has no intention of listening to his bride-to-be’s desperate pleas. Instead, he beats her to death, eventually gets caught, and is left to languish in prison contemplating his awful crime and wasted life. The song’s grim story line — and implicit life-without-parole message — makes it the perfect choice to open The Executioner’s Last Songs (Bloodshot), a benefit CD compiled by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and the first volume in a series of discs aimed at raising money for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project (volume two is scheduled for early next year).
The disc features murder-ballad covers of songs by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Paycheck, the Adverts, and Merle Haggard clustered around the twin themes of violence and vengeance. A veritable who’s who of the underground roots scene — Steve Earle, Freakwater’s Janet Bean, Neko Case, Paul Burch, among others — swap stories and songs as guest singers while the Jon Langford–led Pine Valley Cosmonauts make like a trad-country house-band version of Booker T. & the MG’s. From the manic howl and freight-train rumble of “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” as sung by the Waco Brothers’ Dean Schlabowski, to Jenny Toomey’s languorous reading of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” The Executioner’s Last Songs brims with effortless vitality, gallows humor, and a sense of unforced camaraderie among its performers. In short, it’s got loads of personality (and personalities), yet it never comes across as overbearing or self-righteous — a danger whenever rock musicians approach a subject as politically charged as the death penalty.
Long-time Mekon leader Jon Langford conceived and spearheaded the project, and he says that reaching out to like-minded friends in the underground music community rather than pop superstars was the key to striking the right balance between making a point and making a mess. “This is a bunch of friends, really — and it’s a group,” he emphasizes over the phone from his studio in Chicago, where he’s readying plans for a 25th-anniversary Mekons tour to support a September release and fielding submissions for a follow-up to The Executioner’s Last Songs. “I hate the sound of tribute albums where country superstars deliver sanitized, slowed-down digital ballads of Hank Williams songs. You listen to a record like that and it’s just an incoherent, unfocused, obese load of crap. But people buy ’em by the droves and somebody makes a lot of money. I wanted to make a coherent album — and I think this album stands up against anything else I’ve recorded.”
Langford and the Chicago-based Bloodshot label estimate that the disc has so far raised between $40,000 and $50,000 for the Moratorium Project, which itself is meeting with success: a recent string of exonerations of innocent men sitting on death row has, until further notice, halted executions in the State of Illinois. “We’re not trying to feed Africa or save the rain forest,” Langford points out. “We’re trying to civilize America.”
A British expat who’s adopted Chicago as his home town, Langford first began mulling the moral ramifications of the death penalty when he moved to Illinois from the West Yorkshire city of Leeds in the early 1990s, around the time mass murderer John Wayne Gacy was executed by the state. “I didn’t really have to think about it before because I lived in Europe — I lived in the rest of the world. I was shocked when Gacy was executed and there was no debate and no protest. The Gacy incident would have been a great time for people to stand up and say no. Why do we have to be monsters just because this guy’s a monster? I’m not saying killers should be part of society. They should be locked up. and there should be a big wall, and you should pay people to ensure that they don’t get out again.”
Steve Earle, who turns in a lean, harrowing reading of the traditional folk song “Tom Dooley” on The Executioner’s Last Songs, has for years worked with various anti-death-penalty organizations. An alternate version of one of several songs he’s written on the subject, “Ellis Unit One,” makes an appearance on Sidetracks (E-Squared/Artemis), his recently released collection of odds and ends that gathers together some of his most stylistically diverse work and most surprising covers. Alongside a rocked-up cover of the Chambers Brothers’ psych-soul classic “Time Has Come Today” — a duet with Sheryl Crow — sits a faithfully serrated take on Nirvana’s “Breed.” Most startling, though, is his genre-hopping foray into reggae territory on the Slickers’ Jamaican anthem “Johnny Too Bad.” Although none of these selections comes close to surpassing the originals, Sidetracks offers a unique glimpse of Earle’s extracurricular activities.
The chilling “Ellis Unit One,” a song he originally wrote for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, stands out as the disc’s most affecting track. For sheer pathos and naked portent, it almost matches “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” a meditation on capital punishment told from the perspective of a death-row inmate that Earle, who himself has spent some time in jail on drug charges, included on 2000’s Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis). This one is the death-penalty song that cuts Earle the deepest and is the most personal. ” ‘Jonathan’s Song’ is the result of me witnessing an execution, so it can be a little hard on me. It’s not a lot of fun to sing.”
The idea for The Executioner’s Last Songs took root when Langford performed with Earle and Tony Fitzpatrick at a concert in 1999, which is where he met Dick Cunningham, a defense attorney active in the anti-death-penalty movement who had helped free a handful of inmates on death row in Illinois. (Since 1989, 13 innocent men have been exonerated and released from death row in that state; according to Amnesty International, more than 100 persons have been exonerated nationwide after wrongful convictions during the past 26 years; and 60 Minutes recently reran its story on the alarmingly high number of death-row inmates whose convictions have been overturned in recent years.) That’s when Langford says he first became convinced that the anti-death-penalty campaign was a “winnable” fight.
Earle, who stands to attract some strong criticism when Jerusalem (E-Squared/Artemis) hits stores on September 24 with a song about the American Taliban convert titled “John Walker’s Blues,” points to a moratorium now also in place in Maryland as a sign of increased skepticism surrounding capital punishment — and an increased willingness by each side to talk and work together. “What that means is that even people who still fundamentally support the death penalty are willing to admit that the system is flawed, and that is encouraging to me. Rather than yelling and insisting that we’re right, we have to trust that we’re right and trust that capital-punishment supporters are not bad people, that they believe what they believe because they’ve been lied to. Without the help of a lot of people who believe the death penalty is just and fair in certain situations, there would not be a moratorium in Illinois right now.”
Still, there has been resistance. “Somebody said we’re all a ‘murderer lovers’ club in some right-wing paper,” Langford allows, his voice thorny with sarcasm. “Yeah, we want to see murderers roaming the streets. I come from a country that has many murders a year and there’s, like, 100 times as many here where you have the death penalty, which is meant to get rid of it. It doesn’t work, and anyone who thinks it does is just kidding themselves and lying, basically. The main catalyst for me is having kids that I know are going to grow up in the States and I don’t want to have to explain it to them. As I see it, when somebody dies like that, the blood is on all of our hands.”
Yet one wonders whether a relatively modest, independently released album like The Executioner’s Last Songs — or any one song, album, or piece of art — can make a substantial difference. Are semi-underground artists like Langford and Earle merely preaching to the choir? How do you reach people on the opposite side of such a volatile issue?
“The vast majority of the time we are preaching to the choir,” Earle concedes. “But there’s been a slow change, and, you know, not all of my fans oppose the death penalty. But I know of some who have changed their minds because of some of the songs I’ve written, and that is one thing art can do. I don’t think artists have a responsibility to do anything other than create art, but if what you’re doing is art and not entertainment, I think it is inherently political. I don’t think you have to go out of your way to make political art.”
Langford takes a pragmatic view. “We’ve raised some money for the people who are working thanklessly within the campaign . . . so it’s a success as far as I’m concerned. It’s just one little tool. I don’t know how to go out and change the minds of the great majority who really don’t think about much, and probably don’t like music very much, and now who obviously don’t think about voting very much. Why the hell are they going to listen to me? I’m not Bono, you know.”
Issue Date: August 29 – September 5, 2002

From: www.fufkin.com
The Pine Valley Cosmonauts – The Executioner’s Last Songs (Bloodshot):
An ambitious compilation from the group led by Jon (Mekons, The Waco Brothers) Langford. The proceeds from this disc go to the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, who are fighting the death penalty in a state where, since the reinstitution of the death penalty, more men on Death Row have been exonerated than executed. What makes this ambitious is that rather than a series of political rants on why the death penalty is wrong, the Cosmonauts, aided by a bevy of alt-country all-stars, take on many songs dealing with “murder, mob-law & cruel, cruel punishment” as the liner notes state. Certainly, classic songs like the murder ballad “Knoxville Girl” (done by Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family), “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” (Dean Schlabowski of The Wacos twanging up The Adverts’ punk rock peak), and Lonesome Bob’s version of the Johnny Paycheck standard “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill)” will not immediately elicit sympathy for the cause. But they provide context – a death penalty abolitionist who fails to acknowledge the sting of murder is rhetorically shooting himself in the foot. No one seriously engaged in this issue denies that unjustified killing is unimportant. Once that is off the table, the actual reasons can be put on the table (in this case, visual artist Tony Fitzpatrick, the guy who does Steve Earle’s album art, gets up on his soapbox on “Idiot Whistle”). So the album succeeds at the conceptual level. Other songs do deal with the specific issue, such as Janet (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day) Bean’s take on “The Snakes Crawl at Night” and Rick Cookin’ Sherry on “Hanged Man”. Putting aside the politics, the performances are almost uniformly outstanding, particularly Diane Izzo (“Oh Death”), Johnny Dowd and Jon Langford (“Judgement Day”), Steve Earle (“Tom Dooley”), Jenny (ex-Tsunami) Toomey (Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”) and the standout, Rosie Flores nailing Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive”.
Mike Bennett

Musicians Against the Death Penalty
The Executioner’s Last Songs
by Jeffrey St. Clair

from: Counterpunch

That motormouth Bono announced to the world (everything he says these days seems to have the weight of a Papal Encyclical) in a recent interview in Time magazine that he’s given up on music as a political force. From here on out Bono says he’s going to use the persuasive aura of his own personality to wipe out Third World debt. After all his are the lips that smooched Jesse Helms and the hands that caressed Orin Hatch. Is it too soon to say good luck and good riddance?

Bono’s self-directed exit (was he ever really there to begin with?) leaves the field open to artists who still believe that music has the ability not only to stir the soul but change the heart and minds of people willing to listen. One such artist is Jon Langford, who has been around longer than Bono and has never given up on the power of popular music to reach people and inspire them toward social change.

Langford is a leader of the great British punk band The Mekons, a group of Leeds University leftist and anarchists, who, along with The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Gang of Four, produced some of the most politically-charged music of the late seventies and 1980s. In fact, I’m not sure I could have survived the eighties without the knowledge that a new record by the Mekons could be expected every six months or so. The Mekons made records that sounded just as pissed off as I felt about the Thatcherites and Reaganites and the liberal wimps who stood by as the rightwing goons turned the government into a thermo-nuclear subsidiary of the transnational corporations. And, of course, the Mekons were a raucous counterpunch to the kind of musical fare we were being spoon-fed through the eighties (led by the narcissistic sputum of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Duran Duran), as the corporatization of rock was in full-bloom.

The Mekons may never have acquired the international following of the other bands, but they never sold out either. The Mekons made music their way: confrontational, experimental and uncompromising. They were versed in Marx, Tzara and Debord, but they also knew their Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and T-Bone Walker. Some of their records were odd, some truly bad, and some, such as Rock n’ Roll, stand with the best music made in those dreadful decades.

While many other punk-influenced bands imploded, died off, retired, or, like U2, morphed into pop autmatons for the big music conglomerates that rule the soundwaves, the Mekons, in their various guises (such as the Waco Boys and Pine Valley Cosmonauts), kept on making their own kind of music. Often a species of punk-country. Usually out of Chicago, once the city that electrified the blues, now an emerging center for neo-roots music.

There is, of course, no more potent symbol of the ultimate authority of the state than the death penalty. And it’s prevalence here offers a peephole into the true character of the American political system, where the execution of prisoners often serves as a kind of obscene offering to the electoral gods. Remember Rickey Ray Rector, the black, brain-damaged inmate Clinton rushed home to put to death in the heat of the 1992 campaign? Thus, it’s scarcely surprising that upon relocating to the US Langford and his cohorts would soon begin to agitate, both musically and politically, for its abolition.

And it’s also apt that when the time came to make a full-blown musical manifesto against the death penalty Langford chose to burrow into the American past to reinterpret old-time music, the music that came out of what Greil Marcus calls the Weird America, the Invisible Republic of cotton field workers and hillbillies, juke joints and charismatic churches.

There was a time when American music was filled with stories of everyday violence, the cruelties of prison life, vigilantism, mob violence and the horrors of execution. The old dialectic of freedom and confinement was at the core of the lyrical content of the regional music that gave birth to rock n’ roll. The blues, bluegrass, mountain ballads, Ur-country-roots music, as the labels market it today–all dealt frequently–even obessively–with these themes that were so much a part of being poor and/or black in America. To a large extent this tradition of American music is only being carried on these days by hip-hop.

So now Langford and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts give us: Executioner’s Last Songs, a collection of 18 songs “of murder, mob law, and cruel, cruel punishment.” The title of this release, from Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records, is at once a play on Norman Mailer’s account of the 1977 killing by the State of Utah of Gary Gilmore (the first execution since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty) and a prophesy of sorts. The band, with help of an amazing collection of like-minded artists, reworks music from the Louvin Brothers, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, Cole Porter, Merle Haggard, the Stanley Brothers and Johnny Cash with the intent, according to Langford, “of consigning them to the realm of myth, memory and history.”

The proceeds from the album will go to the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, which has done unyielding work on behalf of death row inmates over the past few years. In the outside world, this toil is largely thankless, but in 2001 17 people in the state of Illinois alone walked off Death Row, in part due to the project’s tireless efforts.

But let’s be clear. The real movement against the death penalty isn’t about only keeping innocent people from being killed by the state. What rational person (WARNING: Antonin Scalia is NOT a rational person) would not be opposed to the killing of innocents? No. This is about abolition, period.

The rising tide of executions (there have been 763 killings since Gilmore, with more than half of those having been carried out in the last five years) is America’s equivalent of Argentina’s so-called dirty war, where hundreds of souls are carted off to their doom with little hope of appeal. Call them America’s disappeared.

There are now more than 3,700 prisoners on death row, with a new one being added nearly every other day. States, led by the killing machines of Texas and Florida, are putting women, children, the sick and the mentally-ill. Meanwhile, constitutional rights to effective counsel, a jury of your peers (people who oppose the death penalty are not permitted to serve on juries in death penalty cases) and habeas corpus have been gutted.

Executioners’ Last Songs isn’t a No Nukes or We Are the World type of endeavor. It’s a genuine oppositional undertaking. The death penalty remains sickly popular in America and resistance to it is scarely a ticket to career enhancement. Artists who take on this cause in a serious way-such as Springsteen, Steve Earle, and Langford and company-do so at some risk to their livelihood. It’s one thing to attach yourself to a cause like saving the Amazonian rainforest and quite another matter entirely, in this nation at least, to demand that the state should not have the legal or moral right to kill prisoners, even if they have committed unspeakable crimes.

But though the issue is almost unbearably grim, there’s nothing solemn or preachy in this offering, no pious sermonizing or Bono-like preening for the cameras. There is, however, a blistering rant-in all the best senses of that word-by Tony Fitzpatrick. With a nod to Dylan, Fitzpatrick titles his call-to-arms Idiot Whistle: “Politicians love the death penalty because it makes a bunch of candy-asses look like tough guys.”

The music moves through its own stages of grieving and lamentation, puzzlement, revulsion, querulousness and outrage: from the lovely and gifted Neko Case’s elegaic Poor Ellen Smith and the Faulknerian black comedy of Jenny Toomey’s Miss Otis Regrets to The Aluminum Group’s 25 Minutes to Go (a bracing countdown to an execution) and Rick Sherry’s full-throttle version of Don’t Look at the Hanged Man.

The Advert’s 1977 punk classic Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is countryfied by Deano from the Waco Boys’ with help of Sally Timms from the Mekons. The inimitable LA alt-country phenom Rosie Flores sings, with a voice somewhere between Melba Montgomery and Iris Dement, Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of this Place Alive. Steve Earle breathes new life into Tom Dooley, making that old story sound urgent, new and familiar all at the same time. To my mind, Earle is the most compelling American rocker out there today. He’s certainly the most interesting, producing music that just keeps getting better and deeper. Earle’s got a voice that can chill your spine and a guitar-style as raw and accomplished as anything hatched by the great westside Chicago bluesman Hounddog Taylor.

Remember George Bush and Karla Faye Tucker? Lanford and Johnny Dowd do in their song Judgement Day: “God gave her life, but the mighty state of Texas took it away. She’s dead. Gone. To a better place. The governor’s so ashamed he won’t even show his face.Just one thing I want to say: She ain’t the only one facing the Lord on Judgement Day.”

Chicagoan Diane Izzo contributes a defiant version of the sinister ballad, Oh Death. Her exquisitely eroded voice reclaims the old Dock Boggs song from the malign purposes it was put to in the Coen Brothers’ offensive minstrelsy-show of a film, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, where Ralph Stanley’s resigned voice is outrageously rerouted through the mouth of a Klansman.

Last phone calls. Last letters. Last kisses. Last meals. Last songs. Dreams of escape, freedom and commutation. Last prayers to Jesus, Allah, Elvis. Final goodbyes. It’s all here in the songs; the unspeakably cruel circumstances of everyday life on America’s death row.

The CD closes with Paul Burch’s assured version of Walls of Time, a beautiful bluegrass tune penned by Peter Rowan, which became a signature song for Bill Monroe. It’s a kind of ghost story, really, a ghost story that ends on a quavering note of love, reunion and redemption.

Executioners’ Last Songs provides an eerie kind of testimony to just how wrong Bono is. The songs are haunting, angry, and, often, funny–the kind of gallows humor that only works when it’s done by those who know what’s really at stake. So take those ridiculous U2 cds down to the used record store, trade them in and recycle the money into something that matters: Executioners Last Songs. And feel good about it. You can make a difference. Music isn’t going to lead the way to radical change (that’s going to take lawyers, organizers, activists, politicians and judges with courage), but it sure as hell can provide the marching tunes. Langford and friends have given us an unexpected message of hope amidst the bleakest of circumstances. Hope through struggle, that is.

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