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Jeffrey Lewis - 12 Crass Songs

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Artist: Jeffrey Lewis

Album: 12 Crass Songs

Label: Rough Trade

Review date: Feb. 21, 2008

Maybe it's a hangover from the ever-so brief OC soundtrack phenomenon that makes me wary of hearing a band that identifies in some way as "indie" (in that nebulous mid-2000s way) releasing punk cover albums. There's something about hearing songs that possess their own unique vitality mollified into something vaguely, or greatly, more marketable that doesn't sit well, regardless of the intent.

Maybe it's a more recent release that's got me guarded about these kinds of projects; Dirty Projectors' Rise Above. That disc feels like the conceptual equivalent of a VH1 nostalgia porn TV show; that is to say, it reduces one's punk-rock past to a novelty to be smirked at. In interviews, Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth couches his smugness in enough po-mo rhetoric to make him seem like a musical Borges, but his mode of reinterpretation, the attempt to "do Black Flag better than Black Flag did, purely from memory," is gimmicky at best, smarmy and unfoundedly arrogant at worst.

So Jeffrey Lewis's 12 Crass Songs seems like it could present the same problem. The album consists of 12 easily digestible, nasally "indie-folk" versions of songs that stood up just fine in their original, obstreperous, stripped-down incarnations. Lewis's interpretation of these songs is, however, at the very least coming from an earnest place.

It's sort-of valiant to expose the anarchistic message of a band like Crass to a generation of kids whose conception of independent music may unfortunately spring forth from SPIN and Alternative Press rather than age-old print 'zines of a sub-Maximum Rock‘n’Roll level of professionalism. That's what keeps the disc from coming off like another slice of smug nostalgia porn. Say what you will about the sometimes stiflingly restrictive anti-fashion Crass had a hand in pioneering, or the pitfalls of the scene that sprung forth from the loins beneath their soiled buttflaps; they're a band anyone with a modicum of interest in independent music should know of.

Lewis's realization of this fact makes for some interesting, albeit not always particularly entertaining takes on Crass originals. Crass's bleak, didactic scene report "Punk is Dead" only sounds right when accompanied by military drum beats and a mosquito guitar buzz. Steve Ignorant hashing out the intricacies of the first wave of punk's corporatization in a breathless rant is one thing; Jeffrey Lewis doing it at half-speed with mock-John Darnielle nasality sounds like a parody, and Lewis's bored-sounding delivery doesn't help. Likewise for "Do They Owe Us a Living,” and "Big A, Little A,” two of Crass's most forceful tracks. The former, a straightforward, sneering assertion of political egalitarianism, the latter a more generalized blistering youth anthem, are both vivisected by Lewis and end up sounding like something by The Moldy Peaches. That's a sound you can assess the ups and downs of in its own right, but interpreting Crass through that style turns the vicious attitude of the originals to mush.

“Banned at the Roxy,” on the other hand, is almost reinvigorated in the hands of Lewis, the incomprehensible grit of the original is replaced with an "I Want Candy" melody, turning the original's nihilistic diatribe into an engaging pop song, making it at least enjoyable, if not strangely out of context.

12 Crass Songs is at least in some way an attempt to introduce the lyrically dense roots of anarcho-punk to a different audience, one whose introduction to independent (or near-independent) music may have skipped all the crusty grit and political fervor. Providing a bridge back to one of the DIY ethic's most formative acts is admirable, it's just a shame that it has to sound so fucking annoying.

By Matthew A. Stern

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