At first look, this collection of ’60s and ’70s pop songs sung by a 60-voice rural Canadian children’s choir is bound to illicit more than a few snickers. Careful listening, however, reveals Innocence and Despair to be one of the purest examples of “music for music’s sake” in recent memory.

Originally released as two separate albums in ’76 and ’77, the performances on Innocence and Despair were never meant to be heard outside the provincial Langley School District. Hans Fenger, an Amsterdam-born, Sun Ra and Brian Wilson-loving hippie who played in Vancouver rock bands before snaring a job as Langley’s music teacher and project supervisor, only pressed up enough copies to give to his students and their families. The albums were rescued from eternal obscurity by a New York DJ, Irwin Chusid, who tracked down Fenger and the master tapes.

Innocence and Despair is truly a collaborative work between the teacher and his students. The kids, many from remote rural farms and whose only exposure to music came via radio, make the most of Fenger’s remarkable, stripped-down arrangements. That the album’s songs were recorded live to two-track in a gymnasium actually plays in their favor: The sound of cymbal crashes–the chorus was augmented by a small rag-tag ensemble featuring Fenger on guitar and a few children playing drums, bass and percussion–seemingly explode out of nowhere, giving David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft” an edge their authors probably never even conceived of. Several songs, such as The Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” and The Beach Boys “I Get Around,” are delivered so enthusiastically they’re more like pep-rally cheers than pop songs.

It’s hardly surprising that Innocence and Despair has become a bestseller in the aftermath of Sept. 11, with several news organizations using the Project’s rendition of Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” as a soundtrack for their reports. No doubt it’s because these songs, lovingly performed and recorded, transport us back to a simpler, more innocent world.