The Langley Schools Music Project

Innocence & Despair (Bar/None)

"Outsider art" recognizes unschooled artists from the fringes of mainstream culture as the bearers of a unique and unmediated authenticity. The genre's most succinct -- if also a bit tongue-in-cheek -- definition comes from an episode of The Simpsons, in which an art dealer played by Isabella Rossellini explains that it's work that might be created by "a mental patient, a hillbilly, or a chimpanzee." At its most powerful, outsider art reveals a sociological sublimity, where society's edge-dwellers communicate back to the center a kind of transcendental vision and universal meaning. The recordings of the Langley Schools Music Project certainly rank as one of the strangest and most affecting examples of the form, but instead of mental patients, hillbillies, or chimpanzees, the musicians and singers on this album are 60 rural schoolkids from western Canada, playing hits of the '60s and '70s by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles.

What's even stranger is that these recordings aren't the work of some 21st-century, postmodern choir director, but a longhair music instructor named Hans Fenger. In 1976 and 1977 Fenger taught his classes a repertoire bordering on the bizarre -- from David Bowie's "Space Odyssey" to "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" by ultra-obscure prog-rockers Klaatu -- and then recorded them live to two-track tape, pressing up 300 vinyl LPs of the sessions as mementos for the kids. The final pomo twist, of course, is that the recordings have been unearthed by outsider music aficionado Irwin Chusid and rereleased on compact disc for the benefit of audiences everywhere.

At first, the songs here -- tremulous and imperfect renditions of "Good Vibrations," "Sweet Caroline," "The Long and Winding Road," and others -- sound like child's play, untutored and chaotic. Cymbals crash out of time, and the kids' voices swell in a beehive blur. But the more you listen, the more you discern the delicate balance holding everything together. Fenger's arrangements sketch out the numbers' skeletal structures in pared-down counterpoint and rudimentary harmony, which the kids' voices wrap around again and again, building a surprisingly muscular body out of wispy vocal strands.

Like many outsider artists, the Langley schoolchildren capture the sublime, conveying emotion with their dizzying cacophony. By mastering the songs, they collapse the distance between professionals and amateurs, between Los Angeles recording studios and tiny Canadian schoolhouses. But even more important, by expressing the material's "adult" themes of loneliness, love, and strangeness, these children shrink the gap between maturity and innocence in a way that proves uncannily familiar.

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