Chris Campbell and Grant Cutler: Schooldays Over

Inspiration for this fascinating collaboration by Chris Campbell and Grant Cutler came from Ewan MacColl's Irish folk ballad “Schooldays Over” (part of the larger work The Big Hewer, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1961). While the song's subject matter—the story concerns a life that moves from the schoolhouse to the mines—can't help but resonate powerfully with anyone who's endured struggle of one kind or another (everyone, in other words), even more universal is its melancholy tone, the aspect that Campbell and Cutler use as an impetus for their own artistic pursuits. Incidentally, the two are both Innova vets, with Campbell having issued Sound the All-Clear in 2010 and Cutler his Innova debut, 2012, in 2011 (Campbell's upcoming Things You Already Know is scheduled for an early 2014 release). They're joined by Michelle Kinney, Jacqueline Ultan, and Joey Van Phillips for the recording, though the specific contributions they make aren't clarified.

The titles themselves allude to the conceptual approach the duo bring to the suite, with the song-based variations titled“Song 1,” “Song 2,” and “Song 3,” and the four instrumental meditations given descriptive titles such as “Marimba, synths, piano.” “Piano, cellos, glockenspiel” opens the recording with a series of delicate strokes by the titular instruments that instate a wondrous mood, before the first song treatment arrives on a soft bed of synthetic tones followed by Cutler's haunted rendering of the lyrics. The connection between the vocal and instrumental tracks is made explicit when the repeating line “Time you were on your way” is mirrored in the metronomic marimba rhythm that gently animates the piano and synthesizer musings in the subsequent instrumental.

“Pump organ, gongs, balloon bassoons” opens side B with a bold flourish before “Song 2” resurrects the synthetic tones that introduce the first song treatment, with this time a koto augmenting the singing. Vocal phrases build into an hallucinatory swirl, strengthening the incantatory dimension of MacColl's ballad as they do so, after which “Cello bath, koto” lays out a melancholic array of strings, piano, glockenspiel, and koto and “Song 3” closes the work dramatically. In their own quiet way, Campbell and Cutler perform a surgical procedure of sorts on the original by opening it up and dissecting it from multiple angles, and in this way the song assumes fresh, new life. On a final note, Innova has given the release a deluxe, twelve-inch 45 RPM vinyl presentation, which is unusual for a release of twenty-minute duration, but the presentation clearly enhances the strong impression the release makes on musical terms.

October 2013