Pine Valley Cosmonauts: Executioner's Last Songs, Vols. 2 & 3
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.