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Child's Play

Twenty-five years ago, an idealistic freak recorded Canadian children singing pop songs. Newly reissued, the CD is an underground hit.

For Fenger, the timing of the reissue couldn't have been more serendipitous: "Last November, I was really at a low point in my teaching career, and after that I took a number of months off. For lack of a better word, it was just so karmic to have the beginning of your teaching career come back to you, just as you're kind of reaching the end of it, feeling kind of frustrated with it. It was an incredible experience."

One of the best things about the project was that it afforded Fenger, now 53, the opportunity to re-establish contact with several former pupils. One of the soloists, Sheila Behman, whose naked, crystalline reading of "Desperado" is the CD's high point, told Fenger that making the record changed her life. "Music was something that really set them apart, in terms of self-confidence, self-esteem," Fenger explains. "In those days, when kids made a record, it wasn't like now, where they have CD writers and everything. For them, a record was this whole mysterious process -- and the fact that they had a record and Shaun Cassidy had a record meant they were just like Shaun Cassidy."

According to Chusid, the album is special for other reasons. "I've heard hundreds, if not thousands, of school records over the years, and I've never heard anything like this. It's Hans Fenger and his arrangements. It's the repertoire. It's the Orff instruments. And there aren't any horns -- I'm not a big fan of horns in the hands of students; they're generally what make those recordings unlistenable. You've got the quality of the recording, the natural reverb of the gymnasium. And the big fact for me is that there's no audience. On most school-band recordings, you hear the audience applauding, coughing, dropping things, yelling things out. This has a sort of studio veneer. Everything was really balanced.

"I've referred to this album as a gateway drug to outsider music," Chusid continues. "I've got to admit that Jandek, Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston and Lucia Pamela could be difficult for some people to take because their stuff is really sloppy, loses the beat, wavers in and out of pitch, the lyrical content is surrealistic, whereas these kids doing Beach Boys, Beatles, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac -- people can recognize the music and, once they get past the fact that the tambourine is half-a-beat off, hear it and go, 'There's really a spirit here, a passion, an honesty, a voice.' And most people get it a lot quicker than I would have thought."

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