Jon Langford & The Pine Valley Cosmonauts 

The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. 1

As far as American songs go, the most popular subjects seem to be romantic love/carnal desire, commentary/protest, transportation (first, trains; later, cars), and death. Well, to paraphrase Carl Sandburg (or was it Mark Twain?), everybody complains about death, but nobody ever does anything about it -- until now, that is. Mekon/Waco Brother Jon Langford has organized and produced The Executioner's Last Songs, a benefit album for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. Rather than going for a compilation of self-righteous protest songs, the unifying concept here is an album full of country, bluegrass, and folk songs about the morality of humankind.

The array of guest vocalists reads like a who's-who of alt.country. The Wacos' Dean Schlabowske does a chugging honky-tonk take on the Adverts' punk classic "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," while indie-rock goddess Jenny Toomey gives the torch standard "Miss Otis Regrets" a new lease on life with her gorgeous baroque-folk rendition. Edith Frost does a soulfully dignified version of Merle Haggard's death row hymn "Sing Me Back Home," which combines honky-tonk and bluegrass, and Steve Earle wipes the Kingston Trio's hit "Tom Dooley" from your consciousness by turning it into an eerie blues and feedback-tinged mantra. Other high points include Lonesome Bob giving the sinister "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)" an appropriately laconic treatment á la Waylon Jennings, and vocal spitfire Neko Case performing the bluegrass-rocker "Poor Ellen Smith." Regardless of your position on the death penalty, The Executioner's Last Songs is a fine, darkly funny, spirited, poignant, and harrowing collection of roots music.

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