Jeffrey Lewis – 12 Crass Songs

Jeffrey Lewis
12 Crass Songs

2007 has certainly been the year that cover versions have enjoyed a resounding and eclectic resurgence. From the reworked children’s songs ‘n’ stories of the Stuart Staples-curated Songs For The Young At Heart collection, via the obscure-gem resuscitations featured on Dean & Britta’s Back Numbers and Mick Harvey’s Two of Diamonds, through the Dirty Projectors’ warped reconstruction of Black Flag’s Damaged and up to the MOR-in-indie-rehab perversity of the Guilt By Association compilation, the art of reinterpretation has strode confidently to the forefront of the musical realm. And it’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing either, as Dean Wareham himself pointed out in recent conversation with DOA; “Today there are far too many bands writing songs, and frankly so many of them have no aptitude for it.” This brutal analysis of an era where it’s almost too easy to unleash your own compositions upon the world, may partly explain this renaissance. Another thing that also turns musicians to externally-devised material – aside from writer’s block of course – is pure unadulterated fandom, that just cannot be sated by mere open plagiarism or enthusiastic recommendation.

This latter motivation is probably the more dominant force at play with Jeffrey Lewis’s peculiarly burning desire to resurrect and recalibrate the work of devout late-‘70s/early-‘80s British anarchist-punks Crass. Yes, the same Crass whose reputation for puritanical politicking makes the members of Fugazi seem rather conservative and the same Jeffrey Lewis whose Charlie Brown-meets-Leonard Cohen unplugged confessionals and Pavement-slanted alt-rock has made him the acceptable successor to the ‘anti-folk’ crown previously worn by the less durable (and now defunct) Moldy Peaches. But is this a contrary juxtaposition too far – unrepentantly radical British political rhetoric dug-up by a moonlighting New York cartoonist thirty or so years down the line? Well, no it isn’t actually. Moreover, this is arguably the most emotively stirring, bleakly humorous and oddly zeitgeist-friendly set of ‘other-people’s-old-songs’ you can hope to hear all year.

The accurately named 12 Crass Songs works wonderfully on several levels. Firstly, it does a remarkable job of philosophically-connecting the far-left’s political angst during the Reagan-Thatcher years with the liberal-left’s post-9/11 anxieties over the Middle East, civil liberties, consumerism and global warming. Songs like “The Gasman Cometh” could be a chilling missive on the war in Iraq, the stomping “Do They Owe Us A Living?” could be a battle-cry for anti-globalization protesters attacking a branch of McDonald’s and the desolate “I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just A Trick” might now be construed as a slur on the American religious right. Whilst Lewis does a clever job of decoding and deconstructing the harder-edge stuff, he also brings forth the black wit submerged within the Crass songbook (particularly with the satirical swipe at corporately-diluted rebellion that is “Punk Is Dead”) as well as the group’s honest love of humanity (“End Result”). Throughout the twelve tracks, Lewis cleverly manages to reconfigure choice extracts from the dense Crass canon for the modern ear without being lost in earnestness, giving into disrespectful irreverence or turning-off those understandably less tuned-into the raw polemics of the band’s daunting back catalogue.

But the might of 12 Crass Songs doesn’t purely come from lyrical excavation and adaptation. Musically, Lewis delivers these dusted-down Crass diatribes in a smorgasbord of settings that could make Devendra Banhart or Yo La Tengo feel threatened. From dainty avant-pop (“End Result”), through a blatant homage to Smog’s “Bloodflow” (on the cheerleader-adorned “I Ain’t Thick…”), via eerie Hispanic atmospherics (“The Gasman Cometh”), under a vivacious Velvet Underground vs. Violent Femmes strum-along (“Banned From The Roxy”), straight into spectral Brian Eno-indebted electro-organics (“Where Next Columbus” and “Demoncrats”), beneath menacing metallic sludge (“Big A, Little A”) and all the way into the warped afro-dub of “Walls (Fun In The Oven)”, Lewis and his supporting cast don’t stay in one place long enough to get too comfy or complacent.

What could have been an unfunny joke worn-thin over nearly 43 minutes turns out pleasingly to be one of the most inspired and inventive things Jeffrey Lewis has set to tape thus far. Whilst he’s plainly not quite on par with the grand masters of song renovation and sonic reinvention, Lewis’s ever-growing capability to fuse deadpan absurdity with sincere gravitas is definitely worth monitoring from a proximity close enough to spook those with the Big Brother-like paranoia of a diehard Crass follower.