Two songs into the Free Design’s 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 that’s born must surely die/You know there’s 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 Woody’s biggest fan”), even weaving the distinctive recorder hook from the band’s 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 Design’s 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 aren’t much cheaper. But readily available best-ofs (three on Spain’s Siesta Records, and one on mostly classical imprint Varèse Sarabande) showcase their strengths. Dedrick’s sophisticated vocal writing has always owed as much to Benjamin Britten’s 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 group’s 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 Design’s straightforward love songs (e.g., “Stay Another Season”) didn’t find a spot on the radio beside the Association’s “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 Light’s aggressive jacket copy (“Here’s the beat and the feel of today’s young music”) did nothing to dispel. In 1969, Dedrick offered a sardonic comment on the Free Design’s lack of chart success in “2002: A Hit Song,” which opens with tape-manipulated voices announcing, “Hello teenybopper, hello DJ/We’re gonna play a number, and you’re gonna make it pay.”

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 band’s 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 isn’t likely to find the mass success that eluded the original one, but then, it’s 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 Dedrick’s “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 . . .”) won’t 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 Transfer–style 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”), it’s 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 it’s 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)


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