First, some background: The Langley Schools Music Project is a relic, a lost recording originally produced sometime in 1976 or 1977. It stars an untrained mass of sixty elementary-school students from the farmland community of Langley, British Columbia, conducted by a guitarist and music teacher named Hans Fenger. In the classroom, Fenger preferred to teach the '70s pop canon; he chose Lennon and McCartney over Rodgers and Hammerstein -- and his students did, too. One year, he recorded a large group of students singing in the school gymnasium, capturing the sessions on a two-track tape deck; about 300 or so copies were originally pressed for families and the Langley community. Roughly 25 years later, portions of the work made their way to producer Irwin Chusid, who excavated them for wide release through Bar None.
This is all interesting from a historical point of view, but it's hardly a requirement for enjoying this CD: You would probably have to dislike children, or music, or both not to be charmed by Innocence and Despair. The album is a kick for pop/rock fans who enjoy hearing new readings of familiar material; in this case, the renditions are so earnest and charmingly imperfect that they evoke both laughs and emotions. More than that, though, it's an opportunity to experience kids celebrating the inherent joy of musical expression.
Backed by a shoestring instrumental section of kid-manned guitars, hand claps, xylophones and strange rattling Orff drums, this pre-adolescent choir displays a kind of untrained insight about its material. The children's voices rise and fall at exactly the right moments; they know just where to put the pauses, when to pull back and when to crank it up good. Throughout its nineteen tracks, Innocence runs the gamut from jubilant and playful to reflective and sad. Fenger recognized his students' love of dark sounds and distrust of the cloying pap that passed as "kids'" music -- an observation that is reflected in the CD's title as well as the range of artists covered. Peppy stuff by the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers is here, but so are darker offerings from Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and the Carpenters. For every whimsical moment -- the ooh-ooh-ooh refrain of "I'm Into Something Good," the chantlike spell-out intro to "Saturday Night" -- Innocence provides a more searching counterpart. The Langley version of "Space Oddity," for example, attains a feeling of distance and longing that Bowie's only hints at. Soloist Heather Stout's reading of "Desperado," stripped bare of the overt sentimentality that mars the Eagles' original, suggests that loneliness is a universal truth that touches each of us, regardless of our age or level of sophistication.
Sir Paul, Mr. Bowie, even Neil Diamond and goofy old Brian Wilson might well find a meaningful measure of their own accomplishments within these scratchy, almost forgotten recordings. These kids are having an absolute ball performing their music -- and what could be better than that? This is a pure, perfect testament to music's toe-tapping, heart-lifting, goose-pimpling, tear-inducing power. Pass the tissues, turn it up, and get ready to sing along.