On most weekday mornings I wake up with the radio. The music plays, and the DJ tends to ramble on about the songs, but I'm usually not listening very carefully to either. But music can really surprise you when you're not really paying attention and aren't expecting to hear anything special.
I was completely taken aback by the sound of a children's choir singing the Beach Boys "God Only Knows". The voices were haunting and yet somehow uplifting. Voice intonation would come and go, which would ordinarily ruin a song for me but in this case it didn't seem to matter. There's something so very affecting about hearing children struggling with fragile, untrained voices, singing words that you know they can't possibly fully understand. It's exactly the same unusual quality that characterizes Daniel Johnston's best work. Plus, the absurdly simple arrangement flies in the face of the Spectorian approach that Brian Wilson took with his mid-60's productions. The DJ identified this otherworldly recording as something belonging to the Langley Schools Music Project. The brainchild of Canadian schoolteacher Hans Fenger, these long lost 1976-77 recordings were rounded up and re-released on CD in 2001 with the title "Innocence and Despair". The title is perfect -- no two words could summarize Brian Wilson's lyrics any better. Somehow I'd never heard of this album before, even though it finished 29th in Pazz and Jop in 2003, and inspired.at least two prominent Hollywood movies (Richard Linklater's "School of Rock" and Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are".
Of course, song selection is the most essential aspect of any covers albums. In 2001 (and today), nearly every song here was an obvious, timeless classic. But in 1976? The Beach Boys had been rediscovered and rehabilitated only two years earlier, after the release of their greatest hits compilation "Endless Summer". Fleetwood Mac were only one album into the Buckingham/Nicks era, their days as an inescapable FM radio juggernaut hadn't arrived yet. Barry Manilow is much better regarded today than he was in the late 70's and early 80's. Pulling off songs as weird as "Space Oddity" and "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" with such fluidity --and with children -- took a considerable amount of vision. Fenger somehow knew what would work just as well as he knew what he needed to avoid. One Bay City Rollers song is fine, but most people in his position would have overloaded on goofy, happy songs like that.