12 Crass Songs
Of all the albums he could have made, Jeffrey Lewis chose to record an album consisting of folk covers of Crass songs. If you know anything about Crass, you're probably laughing already. The angry anarchists who made some of the most pissed-off and tuneless racket punk rock has ever heard being translated into a folk album by the mild mannered Jeffrey Lewis may sound like an experiment that will end in disaster, but luckily 12 Crass Songs works so well I think I just became a Crass fan as well as even more of a Jeffrey Lewis fan.
If you don't know who Jeffrey Lewis is, stop reading this review and look him up on YouTube. Lewis is more than another indie rock songwriter, he's also a comic book artist and our time's greatest rock'n'roll historian. In his songs and comic books Lewis celebrates The Fall, K Records, Leonard Cohen, and punk's true founders, Lower East Side folk scum like The Fugs, Holy Modal Rounders, and David Peel. Lewis documents a history of rock music alternative to the mainstream, but just as vital to the music's history.
With 12 Crass Songs, the anarcho-punk band is celebrated and redefined. Now Crass isn't just for leather-clad punks, but a band your neighborhood indie rock hipster will dig. Replacing scathing, tuneless noise with acoustic guitars, strings, pianos, and even accordions, and the abrasive bark of their vocals with the equally tuneless but soft-spoken voice of Jeffrey Lewis will make one wonder why the original Crass didn't sound this good. One can only imagine how many hardcore Crass fans will be disgusted by this album, not because it's a failure but because they know deep inside how much better these covers sound than the originals.
Now the lyrics to "Systematic Death" and "Do They Owe Us a Living" sound not only intelligible, but sane and poetic, worthy protest against the ills of society and coercion. Listening to Crass's "Banned at the Roxy" and then Jeffrey's cover will cause you not only to laugh but to find a new appreciation for Crass's songwriting. "Punk Is Dead" now sounds more like an elegy than an angry rant, while "I Ain't Thick" sounds just as angry but much more comprehensible than the original.
12 Crass Songs is not a gimmick, an insult to Crass, or a mockery of their beliefs or their music, but a celebration of what they stood for. As unlistenable as their records can be, Crass still has something of great importance and vitality to share and Jeffrey Lewis wants us to know that.