The Pine Valley Cosmonauts: The Executioner’s Last Songs

Neal Pollack and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature

The Executioner’s Last Songs
US release date: 19 March 2002 15 April 2002

by Andrew Gilstrap
PopMatters Associate Music Editor

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It Don’t Mean a Thang If It Ain’t Got That Twang

In the words of the inimitable Bloodshot Records website, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts are a “loosely organized musical collective that sprouts periodically, like a rare orchid out of the desert sand, to deliver unto the world records of vision, of tribute, of unfettered revelry. The core of the group includes Steve Goulding (Waco Brothers, Mekons), Tom Ray (Devil in a Woodpile, touring with Kelly Hogan, Neko Case), multi-instrumental genius John Rice and Jon Langford at the shaky helm. Joining this tight ensemble is an ever-growing cast of fiddlers, horn players, steel guitarists, and whoever else fit the riotous and rollicking moment.”

That seems an apt description for a band that’s released a pretty good tribute album to Johnny Cash, an absolutely stunning tip of the hat to Bob Wills, and whose presence on Kelly Hogan’s Beneath the Country Underdog was a perfect complement to Hogan’s unearthly voice. They’re kinda like the ultra-twangy version of Lambchop, with an archivist’s reverence for the past, but also an obvious delight in the mere act of playing music. Within the last month, they’ve participated in two wildly differing projects: The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and The Executioner’s Last Songs.

Have You Ever Heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!

A little background, in case you’re an unlettered troglodyte of the sort that E.D. Hirsch and Harold Bloom release into the wild and hunt for cruel sport: Neal Pollack is, as he’ll tell you himself, “America’s Greatest Living Writer”. Over his seventy years of writing, he’s been the romantic obsession of hundreds — nay, thousands — of men and women, forged bitter hatreds with the mayors of major metropolitan cities, and been tossed about in riots of fans all wearing Neal Pollack masks. He’s Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal all rolled into one seductive, ego-driven alpha male.

Or so the legend goes. Pollack is actually a 30-something Chicago writer who, over the last couple of years, has skewered our writing tradition with such convincing authority that his very existence was questioned, that he might be only a construct of the literary imps at McSweeney’s Quarterly. Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s editor and author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was thought to be the main culprit, but that rumor’s been squashed pretty effectively. At least as far as any rumor concerning Pollack can be squashed.

A short time back, Pollack released his book The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, an exercise just as humble as it sounds. Collecting a variety of Pollack’s writing, it skewered popular magazine conceits like trolling the lower-class for stories (“I am Friends with a Working-Class Black Woman”), testosterone-fueled boasts (“I Have Had Sex with 500 Women”), and pretentious foreign reporting (“The Albania of My Existence”). The jokes could wear a bit thin at times, but as a reader, coming across a line like “The colt loomed monstrously in front of a swirling wall of rain clouds. He was El Caballo de Sangre, The Horse of Blood, the death horse” (from “Portrait of an Andalusian Horse Trainer”) is just too delicous. Here, with aid from the Cosmonauts, he adapts the Anthology to CD.

“It is Easy to Take a Lover in Cuba” rides a brisk Latin groove (that’s quirkily reminiscent of the theme for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) as Pollack reminisces about plentiful Cuban sex. After waxing poetic about his gorgeous half-Portuguese/half-French ballet dancing girlfriend with a Ph.D. in International Relations, he nevertheless finds himself exploring the island’s dark, humid heart. “I’ve been in Cuba for eight days now, and have had sex with over 65 women”, he says at one point, recalling how he bought sex from some for as much as ten American dollars while he had another woman for a full day merely by giving her a copy of the New Yorker‘s Summer Fiction issue. It might seem an outlandish premise for satire, but if you’ve ever thumbed through a modern men’s magazine like Details or Maxim, you’ve seen the articles on how Icelandic women starved for genetic diversity will seduce you while you’re still retrieving your luggage at the airport, or how to work your way through the Kama Sutra as you backpack across India.

Likewise, “The Albania of My Existence” rests on a firm tradition of reporters traveling to the worst corners of the world. Pollack’s Albania is a place where children play soccer with bloated cat carcasses, and people eat dirt (except during Pollack’s visit there is a dirt shortage). Over a bed of plaintive, rustic strings, Pollack paints a portrait of armless patriarchs, refugees, and houses with no roofs but with plentiful satellite dishes. Pollack sits amidst the poverty, watching CNN and lamenting that the Albanians have never heard of Cambridge.

Throughout Pollack’s tales of life fully lived, the Cosmonauts rarely take the spotlight, instead playing away in the background and occasionally stepping forward when Pollack pauses for dramatic effect. Think of National Public Radio’s This American Life, where music casts a helpful shading on the proceedings. Pollack’s words are capable of carrying the day on their own, which the Cosmonauts seem to readily accept. There are some vocal flourishes from the band, such as the bluesy holler that laces through “I Am Friends with a Working-Class Black Woman” or the brief snatches of French cooing in “Letter from Paris”, but this is Pollack’s show. A couple of lo-fi moments like “A Spoken Word Poem for America” perfectly summon images of Kerouac or Ginsberg in some bohemian club.

All in all, it’s pretty funny stuff. If you’re a Pine Valley Cosmonauts fan, you may be a bit disappointed by how earnestly the band takes on its subtle supporting role. Pollack’s writing, though, is sharp and his satirist’s eye is remarkably keen. If you’ve found yourself at your local magazine rack shaking your head over the decline of men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire, then Pollack’s bizarro world should be right up your alley.

Deathly Ditties Old and New

Far more serious is The Executioner’s Last Songs. A benefit for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project (Illinois is the home of numerous death penalty convictions that have been overturned on the basis of DNA evidence), the disc finds the Cosmonauts being joined by folks like Steve Earle, Neko Case, Lonesome Bob, Jenny Toomey, Sally Timms, and Johnny Dowd. The death penalty’s a hot button topic, and The Executioner’s Last Songs attacks it with full-hearted conviction, making the fairly strident soundtrack to Dead Man Walking sound slightly noncommittal. Personal politics may keep many from enjoying The Executioner’s Last Songs, which is unfortunate, because it works as both a political statement and as an enjoyable listening experience.

Brett Sparks kicks things off with “Knoxville Girl”. It might at first seem strange to argue against the death penalty by singing from the perspective of a convicted murderer, but it’s a technique that the album uses repeatedly to its advantage. The songs, from Steve Earle’s rambunctious rendition of “Tom Dooley” to Lonesome Bob’s “Excuse Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill)”, humanize the killers, arguing that their crimes were not the result of conscienceless evil, but of human emotions gone too far. They could be, the songs say, me or you if only we were painted into the wrong corner.

Overall, the album works. A few songs, like “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” and especially Tony Fitzpatrick’s “Idiot Whistle” (a spoken word rant), come across as too weird or strident. However, that’s the unflinching course The Executioner’s Last Songs takes. There are some real gems here, such as Rosie Flores’ honky tonk cover of Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive”, Janet Bean’s jaunty “The Snakes Crawl at Night”, and Puerto Muerto’s macabre “The Hangman’s Song”. Neko Case belts out “Poor Ellen Smith” and Johnny Dowd is his usual creepy self on “Judgement Day”. Through it all, the Cosmonauts plug away as one of country music’s most versatile backing bands. As opposed to their presence on Pollack’s disc, the Cosmonauts are as responsible as the vocalists on The Executioner’s Last Songs for the songs’ authentic feel.

It’s music with a purpose, and whether you agree with their stance or not, the musicians assembled here attack the problem with conviction and fun. With The Executioner’s Last Songs, Langford and company achieve the enviable goal of making art that holds both entertainment and social commentary. It might not, as the cover proclaims, “consign songs of murder, mob-law, and cruel, cruel punishment to the realm of myth, memory, and history!” but it’s social criticism in one of its best forms.