Mojo Nixon, some kind of joker, once recorded a song called Death Row Blues. Not that he knew anything about them.
The rough-cut Louisiana blues artist Robert Pete Williams, who earned himself a life sentence for shooting a man dead in 1956, recorded the songs Farm Blues, Freight Train Blues, Matchbox Blues, Railroad Blues, Tombstone Blues, Vietnam Blues, Prisoner’s Talking Blues and Pardon Denied Again. But he never had death row blues. Williams was pardoned after a pair of ethnomusicologists, who had recorded the melodious inmate, pleaded successfully for his release in 1958. That’s not the only time a prisoner was ever released because of his way with moans and seventh chords.
But who spoke for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley? They were teenagers when they were convicted for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. (Echols alone was sentenced to death.) They spent 18 years in prison, while outside the gates, mounting evidence cast doubt on their conviction. And the three are subjects of a 2012 documentary directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis, that’s opening in Toronto and Vancouver on Jan. 25.
Those who fought for the trio’s acquittal – they were finally freed in 2011 but still haven’t been exonerated – included musicians such as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, Patti Smith and Natalie Maines, all of whom contributed to an emotional soundtrack to Berg’s film.
This album, however, features “music and songs inspired by the film.” The actual score was written and performed by the soundtrack-specializing duo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of the Australian alt-rock band Grinderman and, in Cave’s case, the Bad Seeds).
Solemn elements of the Cave-Ellis score are heard on the opening track of the album, Damien Echols Death Row Letter Year 9, in which the spoken-word artist and hardcore musician Rollins reads a letter Echols had written to him in 2003.
“I’m getting scared, Henry,” it reads. “I can’t tell anyone else that, because everyone here wants me to be fearless, to have no doubts.”
Pink Floyd’s Mother, a slow, spacey number about emotional retreat and isolation, is rendered poignantly by the Dixie Chicks’ Maines and, on lap steel, Ben Harper. A highlight is Joy by Lucinda Williams, a gritty, jangly blues tune first recorded by the alt-country misery queen in 1998 and re-recorded recently: “You got no right to take my joy; I want it back.”
Shock-rocker Manson offers a rigid, relentless take on You’re So Vain, while actor Johnny Depp, as part of the band credited as Tonto’s Giant Nuts, is nothing special on a rumbling cover of Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man.
Vedder, a staunch backer of the West Memphis 3, contributes a ukelele love song originally written for Echols and his wife, who met and married while Echols sat on death row.
Poet-punkstress Smith closes with a scratchy and haunting live version of Wing: “I couldn’t go nowhere, no future at all, yet I was free.” Freedom isn’t necessarily just another word for nothing left to lose. Sometimes being free, if only in the mind, is all there is.
MORE NEW RELEASES
- Live at Legends
- Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy, like Muddy Waters, spells “man” with an “m,” an “a (child)” and an “n.” It’s a short Mannish Boy word, which works well for Guy, a flamboyant and funky blues-rock guitarist and urgent soul-styled singer whose attention span is at a deficit. On a live album recorded at his own Chicago club in 2010, Guy – he is his establishment’s titular legend – resists the urge to stay with any one groove for long. He goes hard; he goes soft. He is medley-happy, starting one track with Willie Dixon’s brazenly declarative I Just Wanna Make Love to You before quickly moving on to a small part of Bobby Rush’s Chicken Heads. Later, a languorous take on Eric Clapton’s psychedelic cream of Strange Brew is frustratingly brief. The show comes and goes so furiously and in fits that an extra three (heavy) studio tracks are tacked on to bring this thing to proper length. “I’m the best damn fool,” the talented but easily diverted Guy sings at the disc’s beginning, and at least he is no liar. Brad Wheeler
- Cross Culture
- Joe Lovano Us Five
- Blue Note
A quintet that’s often a sextet, with two drummers and, on occasion, doubled bassists, Joe Lovano’s Us Five is hardly a standard jazz combo. Yet as radical as the group’s approach can be, there’s northing off-putting about the music made. Some of that has to do with Lovano’s ability to stretch the limits of saxophone improvisation without caterwauling, but mostly it’s because the group wants to rethink jazz fundamentals, not abandon them. With Cross Culture, that means emphasizing the rhythmic possibilities, a task made easier by guest guitarist Lionel Loueke, whose supple phrasing and deft use of electronics all but obliterate the distance between melody and rhythm. J.D. Considine
- Toccata: Music by Barbara Pentland
- Barbara Pritchard, piano
The selections from Barbara Pritchard’s survey of Canadian composer Barbara Pentland’s music for piano span a period from 1946 to 1985 and include far more than the Toccata that gives the CD its title. The disc is well-named, however: The word “toccata” stems from the verb “to touch,” and while it refers specifically to the physical act of touching the keys, we the listeners are touched here, too, not the least through the sensitivity of Pritchard’s interpretations. Pentland’s embrace of modernism took many forms, but she did not turn her back on beauty (or extra-musical associations), and her imaginative use of pianistic colour, her pliable rhythms and extraordinary ear for pitch relationships contribute to music that is sensuous and reflective. This recording celebrates the centenary of Pentland’s birth, but what it really celebrates is her unique, compelling voice. Elissa Poole