12 Crass Songs
effrey Lewis, Lord love him, is no Pavarotti. This means a number of things: on the plus side, he’s thinner, and not dead; but when God parcelled out the voiceboxes, Jeff’s spent three months in shipping until the Royal Mail finally invoiced the family for a £10 cover charge to collect it from a depot in Berkshire. And when it got there, the contents had suffered severe water damage. In short, singing isn’t Lewis’s strong point.
This isn’t normally a cause for concern when the lyrics are as witty as his voice is shitty, but the virtues of his originality, personality, and flair cannot be applied as justification for an album of punk covers. Without his own creative contribution, is a Jeffrey Lewis album still going to be worth the listen? Naysayers may say nay—it’s what they do, after all. But the truth is, Lewis’s latest 12 Crass Songs, despite his numerous technical failings, more than comes up with the goods.
It helps that the source material is strong. My previous materialistic metaphor was an example of why the world needed Crass; the thought structures of capitalism are embedded in our language, and Crass’s brutal but beautiful proto-hardcore demolished these cultural concepts in song like no band before or since. Led by the cruelly-misnamed Steve Ignorant and the wholly appropriate Eve Libertine, Crass destroyed, and in realizing this Lewis made his first step towards a half-decent album of their songs. This is not just “punk covers,” in the awful pop-played-wrong sense, and it’s not a “tribute” album either, eschewing mish-mash and low-grade, talent-raping filler to make room for sharp, insightful reinterpretations.
Lewis works within his limits, and by doing so, takes the songs out of theirs. Where Ignorant used his glottal grunt as a blunt instrument, Lewis fits his weedy strain to the originals’ lurking paranoia. On “End Result,” he sounds weak, scared, cornered—like the “scapegoat of useless, futureless, endless, mindless ideas” the lyrics profess him to be. Where the original was a detuned sped-up unravelling, the cover comes off as cyclical, a frail loop in danger of structural collapse. Both have their own charm, though neither is either artist’s best work. The album comes into its own with the bleating/chanting anti-slogans of “I Ain’t Thick,” where Lewis’s lone voice and quietly tingling guitar comes off as defiant as Crass’s full punk clatter.
Some songs, particularly “Securicor,” seem made for acoustic reimaginings. “Punk Is Dead” gets finger-picked like a bargain basement Leonard Cohen, while “Systematic Death” makes for a rollicking Dylanesque ramble, thin bluegrass soloing pushing up between Green & Dawson-style vocal interplay like weeds in the pavement, finally crushed when the voices combine for the song’s pessimistic finale. “The Gasman Cometh” is neatly updated with loping bass and strange Spaghetti Western effects; “Banned for the Roxy” lets Lewis over-fill his vocal lines to his heart’s content while the trashy, joyous chords will put smiles on the faces of iGeneration bedroom learner-strummers the world over. “Do They Owe Us,” the first song Crass wrote is in and out in under 1:45, with particularly glorious playgroup exuberance. All told, Lewis has a gift for making classics out of classics, and throughout this smart, inspired album, there’s rarely a wrong note hit. (I speak metaphorically.)
Reviewed by: Richard O’Brien
Reviewed on: 2007-10-03