After a short stint with Canada’s favorite psychedelic country stars, The Sadies, the prolific ex-Mekon, Jon Langford is back with his Pine Valley Cosmonauts. The Executioner’s Last Songs: Volume II and III was designed as a protest project in order to bring attention to the injustice of capital punishment. Thematically the record is strong, both discs filled with songs of “murder, mob-law and cruel cruel punishment.” That said, however, despite the all-star cast of musicians from the bursting alt-country scene, the sheer length of the record can make listening to it in its entirety somewhat of a feat.
Don’t get me wrong though. There is a wealth of good stuff here. Kurt Wagner of Lambchop makes an appearance to sing Tom Waits’ “The Fall of Troy” as does David Yow of the Jesus Lizard ( ! ) to sing Roger Miller’s “One Dyin’ and A Buryin’.” The performances are solid throughout. Langford performs a rousing rendition of “Delilah” while Mark Eitzel of American Music Club offers one of the record’s finest moments with “God’s Eternal Love.” Even the tracks sung by lesser known artists are stellar as in the case of Pat Brennan’s “Death Where Is Thy Sting” and Gurf Morlix’s “Hanging Me Tonight.”
Given the subject matter, the tone of The Executioner’s Last Songs is subdued. The record is certainly not for everyone, however, if you’re up to the challenge, the record provides a dense listening experience. It’s difficult to put into words…all the songs on the record can be considered country, and yet, that word has come to take on many meanings. For the most part, the songs are slow, sparse and emotional.
As such, if you’ve murdered someone recently and you are cowering in a corner with blood on your hands and the guilt eating away at you, this would make excellent listening as you wait for the police to arrive.
By Ryan Wugalter
From: Pop matters
Raisin’ Hell, Raisin’ Cash
by Mitch Pugh
Jon Langford is one of those musicians destined to be criminally under appreciated. It’s partially his own fault; he’s got the attention span of an eight-year old desperately in need of Ritalin. He’s been a force behind the Waco Brothers, the Mekons, and most recently the Sadies. And if he didn’t already have enough his plate, Langford and pals are also the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
And since it appears producing quality music isn’t enough of chore, the Cosmonauts have became major contributors to the fight against the death penalty. Last year’s Executioner’s Last Songs, Vol. 1 raised more than $40,000 for the Illinois Coalition against the Death Penalty. Coincidentally, Illinois Gov. George Ryan stepped out of his Republican box to declare a moratorium on the death penalty in the same year. The follow-up, Vols. 2 &3, will also donate proceeds to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Illinois Coalition against the Death Penalty.
But that’s enough about politics. Let’s get to the music.
The Cosmonauts are Langford, Tom V. Ray (formerly of the Bottle Rockets and currently Devil in a Woodpile), fellow Mekons Steve Goulding and Sally Timms, Celine (yes, one word) and Pat Brennan. That lineup, though, apparently wasn’t enough to accomplish the band’s mission to “consign songs of murder, mob-law and cruel punishment to the realm of myth, memory and history”. Nope. It took a cast of 26 twangsters to pull of the feat, including the likes of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, the Old 97s’ Rhett Miller, the Meat Purveyors, Alejandro Escovedo, Chris Mills, and Dave Alvin. And the results, while uneven, are an experience to be had.
The best material comes from the usual suspects.
Leadoff track, “Gallows Pole”, sets the tone perfectly, the electric slide guitar meshing with the rough hewn voice of Tim Rutili (Red Red Meat, Califone). The traditional song harkens to the roots of the death penalty — the dark and terrifying days around the turn of the century — yet pulls it kicking and screetching into the 21st century with a more lively and modern arrangement.
Kurt Wagner’s cover of Tom Waits’s “The Fall of Troy” is as stark and beautiful as the original. And while it doesn’t swerve too far from Waits’s version, the opening lines, “It’s the same with men, horses and dogs / Nothing wants to die”, take on new and haunting depths as a part of this collection. Strangely enough, Waits’s hands seem to be all over “Gulag Blues” by Lu Edmonds (the Damned, Billy Bragg, the Blokes). Frankly, the language is unrecognizable, but the traditional folk song becomes Waitsean with Edmonds’s arrangement. The song turns into a wild, slurring storm of death, doom, and despair — at least that’s the feeling it conjures.
“Horses”, with Chris Mills on vocals and help from Dave Alvin and Dean Schlabowske, pairs the horror of death with up-tempo country rock. It’s one of Vol. 2’s strong points. The images of campfires burning and frightened people hiding in their homes are disconcerting, yet somehow hopeful. The next track, Diane Izzo’s cover of “Strange Fruit”, is spare and elegiac, the contrast of burning flesh and fruit is another that takes on new meaning in the shadow of the record’s mission.
But, as Vol. 3 demonstrates, the record isn’t made up of 27 downers. Alejandro Escovedo’s “Bad News” is a rollicking country rocker about a relatively harmless troublemaker with a penchant for the ladies who escapes death in just about every state. Escovedo isn’t the only one having fun. The always energetic Rhett Miller delivers “Dang Me” like it was straight out of the Old 97s’ back catalogue of alt-country mischief. This remake of a Roger Miller song is a light-hearted, first-person account of the youngest of seven who’s always getting in trouble. The refrain, “Might as well hang me”, is in sharp contrast to the doom and gloom of the track just before it, Rebecca Gates’s version of “The Ballad of Billy Joe”. In that song, the protagonist plots the death of his fiancée after he finds her with another man.
Overall, the collection is solid, though predictably leaning to the darker side of the issue. Songs by Mark Eitzel, Pat Brennan, and Charlotte Greig are grating and frankly boring on the first listen. But those tracks are more than made up for with tunes like Skid Marks and Sally Timms’s spirited version of “Homicide”. Death penalty opponents will likely pick this up simply to do their part. But even the staunchest of corporal punishment supporters will find plenty to like in this lively, thought-provoking disc.