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12 Crass Songs

Jeffrey Lewis

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Album Review

While in the minds of many punk rock was supposed to be about upending the rules and assumptions that had come to govern rock & roll in the mid-'70s, punk also helped revive the ranting spirit that had informed the best political music and art through the 20th century, from the Situationalists to the Fugs. Among the first wave of British punks, none ranted with greater ferocity and sense of purpose than Crass, who actually were the anarchist firebrands the Sex Pistols pretended to be, though the brutal report of their music was rarely as impressive or as intelligent as their lyrics. Crass were massively influential during their 1977-1984 lifespan and beyond, both as musicians and as activists, and Jeffrey Lewis' 12 Crass Songs is a surprising example of just how far their ideas have reached. Best known for his witty anti-folk tunes, musician and cartoonist Lewis first heard Crass while he was a college freshman in 1993, and the blunt wit and angry idealism of their songs made a powerful impression on him. As he began performing, Lewis began looking for ways to merge the fury of Crass' broadsides with his acoustic-based music and he recorded some lo-fi interpretations of some of their tunes in his bedroom. A few years later, Lewis' efforts have grown into 12 Crass Songs, in which Lewis and a handful of friends (most notably vocalist Helen Schreiner) have taken a dozen tunes by Crass and married them to arrangements that give them a far more melodic spin than they revealed in their original form. While electric guitars pop up here and there (and take center stage on "Big A, Little A"), most of 12 Crass Songs is dominated by acoustic guitar and Lewis' sweet, slightly nasal vocals, but while he has succeeded in making these songs sound pretty and playful in a way they never were before, he's also managed to carry forth their message with a surprising accuracy. It was often difficult to understand what Crass were bellowing about on The Feeding of the 5000 or Stations of the Crass, but Lewis' performances are clear and carefully enunciated, and the backing tracks add a simple but eager tunefulness that amplifies the all-together-now power of the lyrics. Lewis' interpretations are a 180 degree turn from the originals, but they ring forth with honest belief and passion, and the occasional shifts from the original lyrics don't betray the original intent of the songs. 12 Crass Songs may turn these anarchist hymns into campfire singalongs, but at heart that isn't terribly far from their original intent, and "I Ain't Thick, It's Just a Trick" and "Do They Owe Us a Living" remain anthems of empowerment and righteous rage in Lewis' hands. Like Dirty Projectors' Rise Above, Lewis' 12 Crass Songs shines the work of a legendary punk band into a fun house mirror, but their message and philosophy is still remarkably coherent for being twisted about, and this album is fun, bracing, and thought-provoking stuff.

Biography

Born: November, 1975 in New York, NY

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Underground comic book artist, Moldy Peaches friend and cover designer, and anti-folk musician Jeffrey Lewis was born in New York City in November of 1975. Lewis' beatnik parents didn't have a television in the home, so comic books and his father's blues records were early obsessions. Although his first album bought was Whodini's Escape, high school brought an interest in the Grateful Dead (he went to 40 shows) and Nirvana. After graduating from New York State University at Purchase (his senior thesis...
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12 Crass Songs, Jeffrey Lewis
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