Langley Schools Music Project - Innocence and Despair
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
It was a souvenir. That’s the key thing. Innocence and Despair (we’ll get to the title soon) is a compilation of two recital LPs given to British Columbian music and choral students nearly thirty years ago. There was no sense of inchoate genius tossed into the void of anonymity. These kids weren’t mentally ill, shut-in, or Appalachian. They were in elementary school, and they loved a good pop/rock song. Or 19.
Innocence and Despair? Really? The title comes from Langley Schools music teacher Hans Fenger, describing little Sheila Behman’s reading of “Desperado.” For the singular devastating performance; as a whole, however, this record is foremost a supremely ebullient artifact. Most of the appeal, if not the sole appeal, comes from these kids’ joy at bringing these bright, populist tunes to shambling life. It’s fun to belt songs out in a crowd, and the loving strain brought to the harmonies of “Mandy”—out of these young amateurs’ reach, but not their ambition—is one of pop’s defining moments.
And pop is the subject of the record as much as it is the surprising product. No original compositions here, just tunes ranging from arena-classics to faves-for-their-time. But remarkably, Fenger and his charges bring no kitsch to their readings. The instrumentation is deliberately simple—this was the original School of Rock—yet each song’s lineup seems tailored to its predecessor’s emotional morphology. The verses of “Rhiannon” duplicate Fleetwood Mac’s mysticism with just an off-rhythm woodblock, one bass string, and a modified xylophone. With a child’s transparency (and a cymbal crash about three days off-beat—a touching and funny motif throughout the album), the group lurches into a blithe, confident chorus. And it works. They sing “Band on the Run” with the kind of drive and wanderlust that McCartney could only summon through Method acting. Unable to sing the bass parts in “Good Vibrations,” some of the students resort to a kind of sing-talk that deflates the overwrought ambition of the Beach Boys’ version in favor of, well, fun.
Phil Spector’s name was bandied about in the press material for this record, and while I doubt he’d seriously kill to record a Canadian gym, I understand why the comparison is made. The DAT transfer is gorgeous, providing the illusion of cavernous space, and if the instrumentation is sparse, the kids are certainly a wall unto themselves, albeit an emotionally porous one. These are certainly not kids’ symphonies to God, more like lullabies for themselves. Faulting these songs for missed cues or poor tuning would hurt no one, but neither is it needed. Is it a fun record? Yes, oh yes. Everyone’s having fun, and an hour’s worth of FM artifacts gets polished to a revelatory gleam.
In the liner notes to Revenant Records’ recent American Primitive Vol. II, the claim is made that we know more about the habits and proclivities of the creators of cave paintings than the negative ghosts of the 78 rpm era. If we acknowledge that the modern listener is guilty of imputing his own fancied motivations to these first, faceless recording artists, potentially obliterating normal men and women with the weight of wise phantomhood, sure. But some of our more resonant music owes its birth to mere regular folks who wanted to sing a tune they knew. That’s why we have a souvenir like Langley Schools Music Project, and sometimes that’s sufficient.