Pine Valley Cosmonauts

The Executioner's Last Songs Vol. 2 & 3

Like the Grateful Dead, U.K. punk/altcountry legends the Mekons have too much music in them to be contained in just one band. One of the arrows in their quiver is the side project the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, featuring longtime Mekons Jon Langford (guitar, vocals) and Steve Goulding (drums). The overall concept from previous Pine Valley Cosmonauts discs (the excellent Salute Bob Wills tribute and Last Songs Vol. 1) remains the same: The PVCs act as a "core" band, hosting friends and fellow travelers who sing about a particular topic. The Executioner's Last Songs Vol. 2 & 3 is a two-CD compilation unified by the shared themes of death, crime, and (in)justice, with the proceeds from its sales benefiting the National and Illinois Coalitions Against the Death Penalty. Regardless of where one stands on this issue, this is an incredibly diverse and vibrant selection of roots music spanning a healthy (no pun intended) variety of modes 'n' moods.

What makes Last Songs Vol. 2 & 3 hang together so much better than most "tribute" and thematically based compilations is the sturdy sense of purpose provided by the PVCs on nearly all of the tracks. The featured guests encompass the altcountry, roots rock (Chris Mills, Rhett Miller), traditional U.K. folk (Charlotte Greig), and indie rock (Rebecca Gates, Mark Eitzel) spheres. Their generally heartfelt and committed vocal performances give Last Songs both variety and consistency. Highlights include Dave Alvin's (The Blasters) gentle, old-style country-blues recount of the Mississippi John Hurt elegy "Louis Collins"; Jon Langford's hearty barroom sing-along take on "Delilah" (yes, the very same Tom Jones hit); underground Brit rock legend Kevin Coyne's declamatory, obsessive, blues-charged quest for a "Saviour"; and soul shouter Otis Clay's old-school Southern R&B (think another Otis: Redding) version of the folk standard "Banks of the Ohio."

Alas, not everything works. The condescending "One Dyin' & a Buryin'" by David Yow (Jesus Lizard/Scratch Acid) proves beyond all doubt that crooning in an off-key, drunken pseudo-drawl does not make you a country (or any kindof) singer. Rex Hobart's "Forever to Burn" is Steve Earle lite, and the Meat Purveyors' "John Hardy" is a bit smug, amateurish, and too cavalier. Those errors of judgment notwithstanding, The Executioner's Last Songs Vol. 2 & 3will have roots music -- not to mention Mekons -- fans hoping for future editions.

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