By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Just shy of one year later, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts revisit scenes of murder and mob law with Volumes 2 and 3 of The Executioner's Last Songs. The first album raised over $40,000 for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, and all artists' proceeds from Volumes 2 and 3 will benefit the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty. But no matter where your views stand or fall in the political spectrum, this is a first-rate benefit compilation, a genre often deservedly dismissed as the red-headed stepchild of music critics, who more often than not disdain such ventures as subpar and superfluous. Here, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts offer 27 tunes that celebrate, threaten, lament and bemoan the hangman's cruel, cruel punishment, augmented by a core of seven mainstays -- Jon Langford, Steve Goulding, Tom V. Ray, Celine, Sally Timms, Pat Brennan and Drew Carson -- and an additional twenty or so guest stars who bring their sweeping influences to the enterprise.
Five traditionals are featured, the best of which is the CD's closer, a 1967 recording of "Tom Dooley" by the Sundowners, whose terrifically harmonized performance is free of the irony accrued over the intervening decades. A close second is the Meat Purveyors' souped-up, overwrought bluegrass take on "John Hardy," which is surprisingly faithful to the Carter Family's classic rendition of the nineteenth-century tale of murder, repentance, religion and execution.
Originals more brightly shine on the second disc. On "God's Eternal Love," Mark Eitzel threatens good Christians: "Those you lock away will defeat you/They know all your secrets/They wear your indifference like a boast/And your death is only the key to their future/And your children are just pigs they will roast." With "Saviour," English cult-fave Kevin Coyne delivers socially conscious R&B via a six-minute-plus reproof of the world: "Help me find the water/Help me find the river," he chants in the voice of a condemned man hopelessly seeking salvation.
Overall, the two new volumes of The Executioner's Last Songs improve on the first volume's formula, which conveyed the impression of a single band fronted by scores of rotating lead singers. This installment shares with its predecessor the skillful evocation of humor, sarcasm, fatalism, nostalgia and resignation. Like much of country music, the songs vacillate between condemning and romanticizing their protagonists, but they all strive to humanize rather than demonize; collectively, they serve as "one plucky little chisel" digging at the walls of death row.