Childhood's Wild Rumpus
The best thing about Spike Jonze's to-screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak's unimpeachable children's book classic, Where the Wild Things Are, is the way it bucked standard approach of kids entertainment, and refused to impose an artificially colorful, condescending worldview on its material. This model speaks only of adult nostalgia, where childhood is recollected in sunkissed hues of day-glow fantasia. Whereas, in reality, being young means dwelling in a confusing, constantly terrifying state in which your world —which suffers from distinction between reality and fantasy— feels like it could unravel at any moment.
Suitably enough, the Karen O-helmed soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are was openly inspired by The Langley Schools Music Project, an astonishing artifact from the mid-'70s that finds a gaggle of untrained, unknown, rural Canadian children singing versions of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Bowie et al in a school gymnasium.
If this idea had been contrived as a modern-day marketing gimmick —kids sing the darnedest classics!— it would be sickening, awful, exploitative, and, in all likelihood, obnoxiously cutesy. But, undertaken as an aeons-ago school project never intended for any kind of commercial release, let alone unexpected cult-record status 30 years later, the record is amazing. Because, though it's filled with joy and exuberance, it's also filled with melancholy and regret.
Hans Fenger, the hippy school-teacher in charge of the Project, would, in hindsight, recall: "These children hated 'cute.' They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness." So, then, it makes sense that the LP collating these long-ago recordings is called Innocence and Despair."
A large part of the eeriness of this Langley Schools Music Project is the passage of time. If heard in their day, the effect of these recordings would be far less than it is today; but, excavated a quarter-century after they were originally recorded, they now sound like sad remnants of a past time. Not simply in the knowledge that the Innocence of its charges was long ago lost —these kids eternally-young on disc, but now middle aged and scarred by life— but in the actual literal qualities of the recording.
Rolling a two-track tape in an empty gym, Fenger played guitar, a handful of kids bashed percussion, and then 60-odd voices joined in chorus. Doused in the natural reverb of the cavernous space, their voices bleed into a high, floating mass that rarely feels anchored to the music, especially given there's no bottom end at all. Thus, the eerie, creepy voices of a children's choir sound like nothing less than little lost ghosts; and hearing them in chorus is terrifyingly, stupefyingly beautiful.
These yellowed snapshots of a long-gone time have, since being brought into the world-at-large in 2001, earned a cult following. And, in particular, their influence stands stark on two works: the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, which sought to draw from its sadness, and the debut album for Dead Man's Bones, whose monster-movie-ish LP wanted to draw from Langley's spectral, supernatural qualities.
Yet, Innocence and Despair doesn't only work as an old remnant loaded with sadness and distance. It, at moments, has a sense of youthful joie de vivre about it that can't be denied; the hand-clapping, half-collapsing, rollicking, screeched-out versions of Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good" and the Bay City Rollers "Saturday Night" are utterly irrepressible, and impossible not to love. It's like a pure distillation of a youthful love-of-music, preserved against the inevitable cynicism of the coming years.
Record Label: Bar/None
Release Date: October 23, 2001