Aaah, Crass. Those cute, wordy Brit anarchist rambling political punks with pithy diatribes against ‘the man’. They were, in short, angry hippies. With shorter haircuts and tighter trousers. Whatever happened to them? Surely it’s about time they put their differences behind them and joined the reunion comeback dollar?
In our cynical brave new world, where comebacks of rock dinosaurs are 10-a-penny, Crass were the original Adbusters non-conformist band being anti-consumerist, anti-war, anti-anything, direct action type of guys. Never ones to shy away from a fight whether it be with rival bands or the youth culture movement they were fiercely a part of. Doggedly sticking to their beliefs in favor of rolling over to the sell-out of success was ultimately their undoing, but they have to be applauded for that alone.
So why on earth would Jeffrey Lewis, one of the prime movers of new York’s anti-folk scene want to do stylistic re-workings of the most outspoken of all the punk icons? Would he do a cheesy Nouvelle Vague bossa nova lounge version, perhaps mine some gravitas previously absent, or locate their inner Spice Girl?
The results are occasionally intriguing, and mostly unsettling, but for all the wrong reasons. Having an American singing essentially British punk songs with all of their phrasing, energy, political context and intonations stripped creates an uneasy tension that reinforces the amateurism and ultimately asks the question, why bother?
At worst Systematic Death comes over like some nasty comedy skit about beatniks replete with bongos and cute girly backing. The spindly End Result rambles in non-rhyming slogans like a Manic Street Preachers reject over pretty acoustics, stripping any angst or energy from the original.
On the plus side the strangely contemporary reworking of the hate-list rantings of I Ain’t Thick takes some updating to include the likes of Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker alongside political figures from the ’80s to oddly moving effect. The autobiographical, and tongue in cheek Banned From The Roxy boasts a swinging jive-guitar amidst the reeling sloganeering and duetting with Helen Schreiner. Similiarly the classic Do They Owe Us A Living? is given a skiffle backing that suits the songs relentless barking of the underdog.
Ultimately Jeffrey Lewis is among the school of American oddity songwriters that would include Jad Fair, Roky Erickson, Jonathan Richman and Lee Hazlewood whose individual skewed visions of the world created a world where the weird and wired is king.
Slowing things down, expanding the briefest of sketches and allowing them time and space to breathe is a novel and nurturing fans’ approach to the songs that he admires. Whether it works or not is another matter. Unfortunately the overall effect is that of those music-funsters from the ’90s They Might Be Giants with their nerdy, twee, musical homages to the minutiae of life. Or perhaps The Wiggles…
On the plus side, in the spirit of Crass, all proceeds will go to various humanitarian charities. The real question is whether in the future there will be a cover album of Jeffrey Lewis songs?