Chris Campbell and Grant Cutler’s Schooldays Over: Folk Reimagined

innova logoSchooldays Over is Chris Campbell and Grant Cutler’s dark and haunting reimagining of Ewan MacColl’s Irish folk-ballad of the same name. In 1961, MacColl wrote the song as part of a larger work called “The Big Hewer,” which was broadcast as a radio documentary about the lives of coal miners. “Schooldays Over” in its original form depicts a wide-eyed, adolescent eagerness to leave the schoolyard behind and join in with the other men down in the pits; however, Campbell and Cutler’s approach is of reluctance and fear, as though what is being heard is a snapshot of a grim present-day, and the naive and youthful hunger merely a distant memory.

Detail from the cover of The Big Hewer

Detail from the cover of The Big Hewer

Schooldays Over was released on the Innova label as a 45 rpm, 12” vinyl, along with a card for a digital download. The overall sound quality is very intimate, clear, and raw, almost as if the entire band were recorded live in the listener’s own living room. At times, even ambient room noises appear in the mix, adding to the vibe. This intimacy is juxtaposed with layered and reverb-laden vocal lines, that are sung in a hushed and quasi-whispered tone, not at all unlike contemporaries Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux.

At 21 minutes in length, Campbell and Cutler’s reworking presents layers of drones and repetitive instrumental passages, serving as both bookends and interludes that seamlessly transition into and out of each of the song’s three verses. Timbres and textures throughout the recording are made up of various synthesized tones that are blended with combinations of acoustic instruments, such as piano, strings, bassoon, glockenspiel, and marimba. The range of textures and development of ideas throughout the work suggests a narrative of mortality, one that hints at both a frightening anticipation of tragedy, and the eventual calm acceptance of fate. The opening moment evokes an early morning haze, with piano, strings and glockenspiel sparsely echoing each other, leading into the first verse, which rather eerily focuses on the line “Time to learn the pitman’s job,” as if an apparition is calling one to the other side. Following the verse is a laboriously pulsed marimba drone that crescendos with persistence as it nears the end of side one. Side two hits like an epiphany. By far the loudest moment of the entire release, the opening of the second half immediately shakes off the dark shadow cast by the reverse side. Gorgeous chords and baths of rich cello drones permeate the second half, as the remaining verses bring about an inner peace that was previously absent.

schooldays-overThe decision for releasing it as vinyl makes perfect sense, given the subject matter: Whether one looks at the repetitive nature of a coal miners work, tirelessly working deeper into the pits, or the universal inevitability of death, a metaphor can be drawn by looking at the mechanics of vinyl: a tone arm with a needle, whose fate is sealed as it digs through grooves, spiraling inward towards the dead wax.

The only inherent negatives about this release concern both the packaging and project length. Despite the continuity and organic flow from one moment to the next, Campbell and Cutler give each instrumental section and verse a separate track listing, length, and title, even going so far as to labeling each verse as “Song 1,” “Song 2,” and “Song 3.”  The potential unintended consequence of this, of course, is to strip the listener of the experience of hearing the work in its entirety as a single entity. Admittedly, though, the break between side one and two, and the explosive start to the second half suggests a potential for at least two parts.

The issue of length is purely selfish. Schooldays Over is sonically beautiful, colorful, and is paced in a way that feels as though the 21-minute runtime is up before it even began. Immediately, the yearning for more kicks in as the third verse comes to a close and the needle reaches its untimely end.

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