Two songs into the Free Designs just-released Cosmic Peekaboo, its first album in 29 years, Younger Son finds principal songwriter-arranger-producer Chris Dedrick addressing himself circa 1967, when the group was making its first recordings. Before offering some darkly metaphysical advice (All thats born must surely die/You know theres more than this and so do I), he name-checks several of his own early songs (You were there with Dolphin Dan/You were Wo and Woodys biggest fan), even weaving the distinctive recorder hook from the bands sole near hit, Kites Are Fun, into the elaborately layered voices of siblings and original members Bruce and Sandy Dedrick.
All this self-reference will seem cryptic to newcomers, but not to the Free Designs considerable underground following, for whom Dedrick has a place in the not-exactly-rock pantheon right alongside Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach. In their first incarnation, the Dedricks and associates produced six albums that near the pinnacle of the orch-pop heap. The original pressings of Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love, You Could Be Born Again and their companions now fetch collector prices, and recent Japanese CD reissues that appeared without the members knowledge arent much cheaper. But readily available best-ofs (three on Spains Siesta Records, and one on mostly classical imprint Varèse Sarabande) showcase their strengths. Dedricks sophisticated vocal writing has always owed as much to Benjamin Brittens choral works and 40s harmony group the Hi-Los as it has to the Beach Boys, and was executed with the precision unique to family acts. The material served by their uncanny, low-affect voices ranged from the innocent (paeans to bubble gum and the groups then-8-year-old brother) to the downright bizarre. The aforementioned Daniel Dolphin is beaten to death after dragging the singers grandfather into the ocean, while Make the Madness Stop is a Vietnam-era plea for freaks and squares to meet in the middle: Blow your mind, but not completely.
Songs like this bore as much relation to late-60s counterculture as a Unitarian minister in a turtleneck, but the fact that the Free Designs straightforward love songs (e.g., Stay Another Season) didnt find a spot on the radio beside the Associations Cherish or the Sandpipers Come Saturday Morning had more to do with business than music. All but one of their original albums was released by Project 3, a midsize independent helmed by Enoch Light of the Light Brigade, a bandleader/huckster best remembered for his gimmicky experiments in stereo pingponging. This association gave the band access to topflight studios and sidemen, including jazz-trombone giant Urbie Green and man-of-all-keyboards Dick Hyman, but also saddled them with poor distribution and an unhip, pre-rock image that Lights aggressive jacket copy (Heres the beat and the feel of todays young music) did nothing to dispel. In 1969, Dedrick offered a sardonic comment on the Free Designs lack of chart success in 2002: A Hit Song, which opens with tape-manipulated voices announcing, Hello teenybopper, hello DJ/Were gonna play a number, and youre gonna make it pay.
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The teenyboppers and DJs never held up their end, and the group disbanded in 1972, with Chris Dedrick going on to a low-profile but busy career composing for pet project the Star-Scape Singers, as well as for film, television and various classical ensembles. Cosmic Peekaboo is the indirect result of the recent surge of interest in the bands early work. With many of their original sidemen busy cutting that big Sinatra session in the sky, the Free Design is more of a family affair than ever. Fourth sibling Ellen is notably absent, but in-law and original bassist Tom Szczesniak returns, with two sons rounding out the rhythm section. The voices have clearly aged, mostly to their advantage: In her solo turns, Sandy Dedrick sounds notably more expressive than her younger self. (New recruit Rebecca Pellett now handles the ghostly soprano lines.)
The new lineup isnt likely to find the mass success that eluded the original one, but then, its not trying. Impeccably arranged, modestly scaled and not-especially-pop, Cosmic Peekaboo is the work of veterans as secure in their lives as they are in their craft. Despite the wide-eyed title track and Bruce Dedricks McCarran Airport, which does for Las Vegas what Jimmy Webb did for Galveston and Phoenix, most of the songs replace youthful exuberance with mature optimism. The calmly delivered verities of Destiny (Our life is one unbroken line) and The Only Treasure (as in Love is . . .) wont win over MOR-wary listeners, but Day Breaks is genuinely haunting, and Music Room, sung to a piano-playing child over an artful chamber trio and Native American drum, is as charming as it is sentimental.
The Hook is the biggest surprise. Over an intentionally ricky-tick click track, the Dedricks return to 2002: A Hit Song territory, surveying the state of contemporary pop in close Manhattan Transferstyle harmony. Despite a few lines delivered from the far side of what used to be called the generation gap (You really need an earring in your navel or your lip), its a canny comment on its own means of production: You can clip, clip, cut, in the digital domain/The essence of the thing remains the same. Cosmic Peekaboo might have benefited from more of this sort of playful crankiness, but its hard to begrudge the Free Design their mystical leanings and adult concerns. After all, three decades is a long time to fly a kite.
THE FREE DESIGN | Cosmic Peekaboo | (Marina)