A surprising step after his earlier work with the Jazz Composer's Orchestra and their juxtaposition of avant-garde soloists in a modern orchestral context, Mantler created a virtual prog rock album, setting Edward Gorey's Freudian/gothic texts to music that owes far more to Henry Cow than Cecil Taylor. Enlisting ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt on vocals and Jan Garbarek alumnus Terje Rypdal for some soaring guitar work, he managed to create a very convincing, enjoyably literary recording with potentially large appeal. The song structures are fairly consistent and the melodies often catchy, alternating from somber dirges (quite appropriate to the text) to up-tempo rockers. Much of the success accrues to Wyatt, whose reedy, intelligent voice gives exactly the right ironic inflection to Gorey's eerie tales. When in the title track he lightly sings the opening line, "There was once a little girl named..." then drops into a minor mode for, "Charlotte Sophia," you know things don't bode well for the song's heroine. Indeed, all of the lyrics are compelling little stories and it's to Mantler's credit that his compositions couch and project them instead of competing for attention. The Hapless Child has assumed a bit of cult classic status as a one-off prog rock project and it largely deserves the rep, holding up reasonably well over time.
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AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick