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.
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