By Mike Appelstein
By Daniel Hill
By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
An album of murder ballads might seem like an odd way to protest the death penalty, but The Executioner's Last Songs lends a bracing dose of gallows humor to a deserving cause. Pine Valley Cosmonaut Jon Langford (also of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers) proposed putting together the CD after a benefit concert for the Illinois Coalition against the Death Penalty. Though 35 artists offered their services to the project, only eighteen songs made the cut for Volume One, with the bulk of the profits donated to the cause (check out www.icadp.org for more information).
Langford has produced a good, surprisingly coherent album with a nice mix of traditionals, country classics and original alt-country twang. Texas is the rightful target of several of the originals: Chris Ligon's "The Great State of Texas" borders on preciosity, and Langford and Johnny Dowd's "Judgment Day" calls Texas' former governor to account on behalf of Karla Faye Tucker, warning, "She ain't the only one facing the Lord on Judgment Day." The best of the originals is "The Hangman's Song," from erstwhile St. Louis duo Puerto Muerto. Following Steve Earle's unrepentant "Tom Dooley," PM implicates us all in that which the state does in our names: "Armageddon time is coming soon/The fires will turn us all into dust/And we will be judged one last time/You, your son and me."
None of the covers is definitive, but all are solid renditions, with Brett Sparks' take on the traditional "Knoxville Girl" and Diane Izzo's sinister version of Dock Boggs' "Oh Death" topping the rest by channeling the inherent creepiness that infests so much country music and its tales of "murder, mob law and cruel, cruel punishment" (to borrow a phrase from Langford's liner notes). Though there aren't any bad songs, a few may induce wincing, particularly Tony Fitzpatrick's ill-considered "Idiot Whistle," which attempts to appropriate Luke the Drifter's moral lessons. If Hank Williams could barely pull off such spiritual moralizing, Fitzpatrick needn't bother. But, luckily, the CD doesn't end on that note, instead closing with Paul Burch singing Bill Monroe's trademark "Walls of Time": "Lord send the angels for my darling/To take her to that home on high/I'll wait my time out here on earth, love/And come to you when I die."
Love song, murder ballad -- the line is fine sometimes but resonates when plucked.