In the greater punk rock canon, Crass is one of the most important bands to have emerged from the UK scene. Their anarchist politics and strict, independent ethic made them one of the strongest examples of a band that existed entirely on their own terms, contrary to their contemporaries who were releasing albums on major labels such as EMI and CBS. In any major city in the United States, you’re likely to find some teenage crust punks with Crass patches safety pinned to their spiky denim jackets, which should say something about how well their legacy is living on, if still in somewhat of a narrow context. Of course, Crass were pretty hard on the ears compared to the likes of The Clash or the Sex Pistols, offering little in the way of hooks, and that’s where the primary obstacle lies in relation to Crass’ likelihood or lack thereof in finding new listeners (not that it matters to a band broken up for more than 20 years) as the years go on.
This must have occurred to Jeffrey Lewis, a New York troubadour with three pre-2008 albums under his belt, who’s fourth release, 12 Crass Songs, is exactly what it says it is: 12 covers of Crass songs, only performed in completely different fashions than those of the originals. Lewis’ style is primarily acoustic, with touches of ’60s psychedelia, garage rock and even a little twee (yeah, I said it!). Similar to the way that The Dirty Projectors reworked Black Flag’s Damaged in Rise Above, Lewis transforms these songs, turning them upside-down and reconfiguring them into entirely new interpretations of their initial concepts.
Considering Lewis is more folkster than fiery anarchist punk rocker, his interpretations of these Crass tunes are clean and concise, accessible, and even pretty. Leadoff track “End Result” is sweet and crisp in sound, with cleanly plucked guitar and touches of elegant piano, underscoring incendiary lyrics such as “I am the leper no one wants to touch.” This is where the primary difference between this album and The Dirty Projectors’ similar project lies—where this album is stoic and sober, while catchy and beautiful, The Projectors, while still lovely at times, seemed on the brink of breakdown on more than one occasion.
“Systematic Death” is turned to bongo-beating political folk raveup, while “The Gas Man Cometh” shuffles along like the arriving locomotive Helen Schreiner announces during its intro. “Banned From the Roxy” is one of the most fun tracks here, turning into a ramshackle acoustic-garage rocker. With sweeping strings and a confident, soft progression, “Where Next Columbus” is a peak in songwriting beauty. On the other hand, “Do They Owe Us a Living,” for all of its political rancor, is actually pretty fun and playful, which isn’t to say that its anti-Capitalist message is lost along the way.
After seeing Lewis and his band, The Jitters, live at SXSW, I couldn’t help but allow his distinctive takes on Crass songs, as well as his own brilliant tunes such as “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” to win me over. Likewise, 12 Crass Songs is a wonderfully executed album that could have gone horribly awkward in the wrong hands. This trend in single artist punk rock cover albums is beginning to yield some great stuff. It’s only a matter of time before a brave group of musicians try their hand at Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
Dirty Projectors – Rise Above
Crass – The Feeding of the 5000
The Mountain Goats – Sweden
MP3: “End Result”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.