Death Rattle & Roll

Washington, D.C. activist, punk rocker, and subversive knitter Jenny Toomey croons Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" on The Executioner's Last Songs, a new collection of eerie, gruesome songs from Bloodshot Records. In Toomey's rendition, it's easy to imagine yourself as Miss Otis's forgotten lunch date: Waiting at a table for two, you've already ordered tea, straightened your linen napkin, and read every line of the menu. "Where is she?" you wonder.

It's as if Toomey has entered the restaurant to tell you the news herself: "Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today, madam/ She's sorry to be delayed." Hers is a prim voice for delivering such chilling news in a tearoom: "Last evening down on lover's lane she strayed/ When she woke up and found that her dream of love was gone/ She ran to the man that had led her astray/And from under her velvet gown/ She drew a gun and shot her lover down." It's a sparse, matter-of-fact revelation of lust, lost honor, fury, murder, and vigilante restitution, delivered in a quiet, deadly voice.

Like "Miss Otis Regrets," the tunes on The Executioner's Last Songs—a benefit album for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project—subtly disturb lunch dates and complacent music listening. They also undermine America's cultural acceptance of capital punishment as a civilized and appropriate form of justice. The 18 "death" songs—written by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Bill Monroe—are sung by Steve Earle, the Waco Brothers, Rosie Flores, and Neko Case, among others.

It's a perverse way to promote a cause, but it works. "We encourage you to revel in the paradox of banishing barbarism while singing its tune," say its producers. The CD's subtitle: Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Consign Songs of Murder, Mob Law & Cruel, Cruel Punishment to the Realm of Myth, Memory & History.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2002
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