Capital Punishment. Outside of abortion there is probably no more contentious an issue that can quickly divide a room full of people into warring camps. I don’t know if it’s possible for people on both sides of the argument to set aside those feelings for a couple of moments, but I’d like you to try for at least the time it takes to read this review.
I have my own opinions on the subject, but they really don’t have anything to do with my critical abilities with regards to the music contained within the CD Dead Man Walking: Legacy Edition, sub-titled Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture Dead Man Walking. So, I’d ask you to perhaps read this review, as much as you can, like you would any other review of any other music CD. Included in this new Legacy Edition is a DVD, Not In Our Name. Dead Man Walking: The Concert, containing footage from a concert given by various artists who participated in the CD; it is more politically charged so I will deal with it separately.
I sent the film in its rough form along with a file of newspaper articles my office had been collecting. I sent them to songwriters whose music tells stories, artists that do not write songs with hooks or tricks. All of these songwriters come from a base of honesty and have inspired me in my own work (Tim Robbins)
What can you say about a CD whose line-up includes Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits, Nusrat Fateh ali Khan, Suzanne Vega, Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and they are just the people doing vocals. Accompanying them are a who’s-who of musicians, led by Ry Cooder, Tom Verlaine, and the artists’ own bands.
You can say it better be damn good or it will be a waste of such immense talent. Fortunately, then, I can tell you that there is barely a wasted moment of airtime on the whole disc. From its original recording date of 1996, little has changed except for the addition of one extra track by Eddie Vedder, “Dead Man”.
Of course Johnny Cash is no longer with us and maybe some of these people aren’t the household names they were then, and some may have never achieved due recogniton since. But that does nothing to diminish the sheer power of this music and the quality of the musicianship by all involved.
Johnny Cash: Songs like his track “In Your Mind” only serves to emphasize the hole that his passing has left in the world of music. I don’t care if you don’t like country, or claim not to like country, this man proves in this one song why he towers head and shoulders over any of his contemporaries and people half his age with twice the reputation.
Somehow he captures more of a subject’s essence with a few common words and phrases than any convoluted, pseudo-intellectual drivel that passes for “message music” these days. Completely without pretension, he cuts to the heart of the matter without complicating the issue.
While Bruce Springsteen has tried to take on the mantle of storyteller for the people, here on “Dead Man Walking” he sounds like he’s still trying too hard. I like Springsteen’s music, but it was a mistake to stick him right before Johnny Cash, as he suffers in comparison. Of course, that’s probably not fair as most anybody would suffer the same fate. But for Bruce, it seems especially bad positioning because it diminishes a well thought out song and a clean performance.
I hadn’t heard anything from Suzanne Vega since the late 1980s when she was the darling of folk/alt set. Her track “Woman On The Tier (I’ll See You Through)” is a perfect follow-up to Cash. Her use of loops and discordant percussion creates a contrast in mood and feeling that allows her song to be judged on its own merits. It’s not an easy song to listen to, but it has a power that makes you want to stay with her.
If anyone can name me a singer with more out and out sincerity than Lyle Lovett, I’d be surprised. He can sing words that, coming from another person’s mouth, would make you cringe. “Promises” is beautiful in its simplicity and for the gentleness in his voice. His will always be the gentle argument, never judgmental or angry, thus probably most effective.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who died the year after these tracks were recorded) and Eddie Vedder perform two songs together. On both of them, “The Face Of Love” and “The Long Road,” the truly remarkable feat of East and West meeting in harmony is accomplished. You might not think to listen to Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam that his is a voice or a style that would be suited to accompanying a traditional Pakistani musician and his ensemble. But the interplay between the two men and their music is beautiful and creates an emotional haunting that is apt for the subject matter. (The presence of Ry Cooder, who had worked with Nusrat before, on both these songs probably helped matters, but in the DVD concert shot after Nusrat’s death, not only is Cooder not there, but Vedder works with Nusrat’s nephew Rahat on the same material, and it is equally powerful, if not more so.)
Tom Waits has two numbers on this disc, and unlike his disappointing performance on Red Hot +Blue five years earlier, here he delivers the goods as only Tom can. “The Fall of Troy” and “Walk Away” are Tom Waits at his most emotionally powerful. He has shown over the years a tendency to almost become a caricature of himself and the character he portrays on stage, but here he is at his trashcan jazz best, growling and scowling his lyrics with a lot more clarity and integrity than in the recent past.
Squashed in between Tom’s vocal mastications are two female vocalists, one of them, Michelle Shocked has long been one of my favourites. Her number, “The Quality Of Mercy,” is vintage Michelle — challenging and provocative, while still not being antagonistic. She always seems to walk the fine line of singing from the heart as well as the head. You may not agree with her opinions, but there is nothing simplistic or knee-jerk about her thinking to set your teeth on edge.
I guess in any compilation album there is going to be a weak moment and, unfortunately, that dubious distinction goes to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Dead Man Walking (A Dream Like This)”. In contrast to the work surrounding her it just doesn’t have the life to be anything but innocuous.
Steve Earle, being who he is, takes a complicated view on the subject. His song “Ellis Unit 1” is sung from the point of view of a career prison guard down in Texas. It’s thoughtful and direct. Like Johnny Cash, he has the ability to tell a story without getting caught up in the idea that he’s important to the story.
Earle’s prison guard isn’t complicated, just a Viet Nam vet who has no other options when it comes to a job. Like a factory town, his father and his uncles have all walked the ranges before him. Of course, now things are more civilized and instead of the crowds cheering when the lights go out, they just put the men to sleep with a lethal injection. It’s simple and straightforward without being simplistic; a beautiful little story.
Patti Smith, the poet terror of New York City’s punk scene, contributes “Walkin’ Blind” to the mix. As is her nature, its slightly more obscure than the other tracks on the disc, but driven as it is by the strength of her personality and voice — even if you get a little lost in the words — the emotional impact is not diminished. “Walkin’ Blind” becomes a strong statement about fear and dying from a brilliant poet.
Ending the disc with the Eddie Vedder’s new addition to the disc, “Dead Man” brings everything back down to earth. The previous song, “The Long Road” had been an emotional roller coaster with its incessant drumbeats and soaring vocals, so to have a solo guitar-and-voice song as the finale brings it all back to the level of the individual, which is highly appropriate considering the nature and theme of the movie and the music.
Capital punishment is a complex issue, and probably as long as we have people being the victims of violent crime, it will continue to be a contentious one. Probably all of us have our own individual opinions about its validity as a deterrent and a punishment.
Unlike the CD, where the issue and overt spoken political statements can be largely avoided, the bonus DVD of Not In Our Name: Dead Man Walking – The Concert can make no such claims to neutrality. As it is hosted by most conservatives’ epitome of a Hollywood Liberal run amok, Tim Robbins, those of you who are proponents of capital punishment will probably not want to watch this disc.
But remember that most DVD players come with remotes to allow you to skip the parts you don’t like. So if you really can’t stomach hearing from members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation — who have all lost a loved one to a violent crime and oppose capital punishment — or listen to Tim Robbins or to any of the others who might say something in the introduction to their songs that you may not agree with, you can just hit fast forward.
You see, there are some truly amazing performances on this disc. Steve Earle starts it off with a really clean version of his song “Ellis Unit 1.” He’s then followed onto stage by Lyle Lovett, who instead of his Large Band, is only accompanied by a single cello player. If you thought he sounded great on the CD, that’s nothing to how he sounds here.
Seeing him perform only adds to the strength and quality of his material. Steve Earle joins him for the third song and they do a wonderful version of T. Van Zandt’s “Lungs.” I’m not a big Ani Difranco fan and so it was rather disappointing to find that she had been included in the concert line up instead of people like Michelle Shocked or Patti Smith. I just find her whole “self-righteous babe” trip a little contrived.
What really ended up having me heading for the skip button on the remote, though, was her inability to sing into the microphone — so half her songs lyrics vanished. She was far too involved with being “Ani Difranco” to bother about such niceties as being heard by the audience.
Thankfully, the music in the rest of the DVD is superb. Eddie Vedder took centre stage, first accompanied by Pearl Jam bandmate Jeff Ament, to sing “Trouble” and “Dead Man,” which he jokingly referred to as the “B” side to Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walking” from the original soundtrack.
As I had mentioned back while talking about the CD, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who had originally accompanied Eddie on the songs “The Long Road” and “The Face Of Love,” had died in the year before the concert. So his nephew, Rahat, who had been in the original band, moved forward to the lead vocal position alongside Eddie Vedder.
The result was nothing short of spectacular. With a much sparser band than on the CD, they still managed to capture the power and majesty of the original songs. The interplay of Rahat and Eddie’s vocals was just as much a pleasure as the work Nusrat had done on the CD. Obviously the generational skip did nothing to affect the quality of the music.
Dead Man Walking was a controversial film about a difficult subject. The music on this special edition package was inspired by the film so it is bound to raise the same objections the film did. But the music is so good it would be a shame to let a difference of opinion stand in one’s way from listening. None of the songs are overtly political; there are no chants of “No More Death Penalty” or anything like that. These are simply well written and poignant songs performed by some extremely talented individuals.