Jeffrey Lewis 12 Crass Songs

[Rough Trade; 2008]

Styles: anti-establishment, anti-capitalism, anti-antiquated social systems, anti-folk
Others: Crass, Kimya Dawson, Adam Green, Daniel Johnston

Crass were a band of vitriol-fueled hardcore anarcho-punk pacifists from Essex. Jeffrey Lewis is a quick-witted guy from New York City who makes comic books and sings songs about his insecurities. You can see how the two make a natural fit.

But back in reality, with obvious differences placed aside, Jeffrey Lewis really gets what Crass were saying. The contents of his new album 12 Crass Songs include exactly what the title promises: 12 covers of angst over politics, consumerism, rock clubs, the system, and punk rock itself. These covers are Lewis’ attempts at making a few of the English punks’ songs a bit more cuddly and, honestly, decipherable. Crass spit out their diatribes in a fast clip, with mouths full of either marbles or thumbtacks, but Lewis’ approach is to give the songs and lyrics breathing room. Lewis and his band, The Jitters, strip away the three-chord barrage and replace it with a cadre of lighter acoustics, often allowing the album to be as sonically interesting as its message.

It's clear that Lewis believes in the spirited brilliance of the band’s songs. His enthusiasm to even attempt making this album (and then making it a major release) shows his dedication to the material. The funny thing is, these mutated versions of Crass classics sound a lot like Lewis originals. Lewis waxes bitterly nostalgic about the fate of punk in his own tunes, just like in “Punk is Dead,” and I’m pretty sure “End Result” is a Jeffrey Lewis song. If the world’s collective knowledge of Crass’ discography were erased, 12 Crass Songs could exist as an original artifact without anyone being the wiser, and it wouldn’t even need a revised title.

The best news about 12 Crass Songs: the reinterpretations are brilliant! Lewis, band in tow, has moved a good deal away from his anti-folk roots without being too polished. And he’s proving to be more ambitious and successful in his efforts when he’s armed with more than a guitar and a tape recorder. “Big A, Little A” has that cute ‘n’ angry interchange courtesy of Lewis and bandmate Helen Schreiner (although Crass’ version was kind of cute too). “I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick” is an anthem without hardly raising its voice. And check out the bongos on “Walls” and “Systematic Death.” It’s anarchic bliss.

Lewis doesn’t simply change the sound of these songs or offer the occasional updated lyric. The bravado and spittle have been toned down into something a bit easier to take, but that isn’t the real curiosity about these new versions. It’s that coming from Lewis’ throat, the tracks take on a new relevance in our post-post-industrial-internet age. Maybe the lads in Crass didn’t know it at the time, but they wrote lyrics that apply as well to the state of affairs today as they did in the late ‘70s. Or maybe Crass knew that things never really change, and Jeffrey Lewis knows that Crass had a few things to say that we ought to hear.

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