Jon Langford has a band for every occasion, and in the past he's used the Pine Valley Cosmonauts as a vehicle to pay homage to country greats Johnny Cash and Bob Wills. On 1998's The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills he enlisted a raft of guest vocalists--including Robbie Fulks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, and Neko Case--to sing the old bandleader's tunes, transforming the Cosmonauts into a sort of spirited and flexible session band. On the group's new The Executioner's Last Songs (Bloodshot) the band stretches even further, doling out honky-tonk, country blues, parlor pop, and old-timey country with equal facility. The diversity can be partly explained by the fact that the music is not the work of a single artist this time: the tunes on The Executioner's Last Songs are united only by a preoccupation with death. Proceeds from the album go to the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, although only a spoken-word piece by visual artist Tony Fitzpatrick preaches explicitly. There are old-fashioned murder ballads, like the Louvin Brothers classic "Knoxville Girl," sung by Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family, "Poor Ellen Smith," wailed with typical gusto by Case, and "Tom Dooley," rocked out by Steve Earle. There are songs about lethal jealousy, such as the Charlie Pride hit "The Snakes Crawl at Night," sung by Janet Bean, and the Johnny Paycheck nugget "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill," wryly performed by Lonesome Bob. And of course there are narratives about condemned men and women: Frank and John Navin of the Aluminum Group sing the classic Cash countdown "25 Minutes to Go" with loungey rockabilly cool while Jenny Toomey does Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" extra stark and dirgey. There are also some fine originals: locals Puerto Muerto deliver a spooky Kurt Weill-influenced lament called "The Hangman's Song," and in Chris Ligon's waltz "Great State of Texas" the narrator leavens his impending doom with some cornball humor. This performance will feature a number of artists who appear on the record--Bean, Sally Timms, Dean Schlabowske, Puerto Muerto, Edith Frost, Diane Izzo, Rick "Cookin'" Sherry, Kelly Hogan--as well as Chris Mills and former Jesus Lizard front man David Yow, who don't. Friday, May 31, 10 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.