The Free Design were a 60s sunshine pop act with folk harmonies and a family based membership from the New York area. The group released a series of influential but commercially unsuccessful albums on Enoch Light's Project 3 label (home to The Critters, Dick Hyman, Tony Mottola and Genevieve Waite's Romance is on the Rise, which was produced by John Phillips).
The Free Design released essential, groundbreaking records that went on to influence modern day artists such as Stereolab (who released a single called The Free Design from their Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night album in 1999) and the Siesta label, and you can hear their direct influence outright in these modern entities.
The cd age has been much kinder to The Free Design than the times were back in the late 60s and early 70s. There have been numerous compilations (one called Kites Are Fun: The Best of the Free Design from 1998 on the Varese label, three on the Siesta label called Bubbles, Umbrellas, and Raindrops also from 1998, and one on the Cherry Red label from 2001 called The Best of Free Design), but the only way to get their full albums was to dish out for pricey Japanese imports that were released without the group's input or knowledge.
That's where the Seattle based label, Light in the Attic stepped in, back in 2003, reissuing the entire Free Design catalog in glorious 24 bit remastering, with bonus tracks. There was also a series of 12 inch single remixes (from the likes of Stereolab and Chris Geddes from Belle & Sebastian) which were eventually all compiled on a remix disc called The Now Sound Redesigned this past year.
Their debut album, Kites Are Fun was originally released in 1967 and was full of sunshine pop gems, some cutting edge harmony led folk tracks, some superbly altered cover songs, and a few mellow tracks. The best tracks are the sunshine pop nuggets and the more cutting edge harmony tracks.
The album starts with one of the best of the bunch - the title track, Kites Are Fun which was Chris Dedrick's first song he ever wrote, includes a sweet recorder solo, and is also included in its single version as a bonus track. With lyrics like "I like flying, flying kites....kites are fun", it may be too chipper for some though. For those of us who love the harmonies and arrangement style though, this is impeccable. Umbrellas continues in this style, an upbeat ode to umbrellas and "rain lightly falling from the sky (pitter patter)" which is quintessential Free Design (and the name sake for one of their many compilations).
Make The Madness Stop is upbeat, but also has some cutting edge harmonies and themes with some irregular phrasings, so for those who can't take the sunshine and want to hear a track that totally influenced groups like Stereolab, this is the one to try.
The Proper Ornaments continues this cutting edge style, in its lyrics, but has the sunshiney harpsichord led sound with an array of trumpets (the Dedrick's father, Art Dedrick, had suggested that Chris write something with trumpets). The lyrical content is soaked in the 60s non-materialistic mentality and has to do with all the possessions we have in our life, questioning whether they really make us happy ("your pretty wife, sir, whom you almost love", "your little baby girl you're almost glad you had", "fur coats, jewels and laces, bright red lipstick, big cars, money, tuxes and top hats hide behind the mask of clothes and makeup: ornaments"). Underneath the sunshine could lurk that questioning glance into the darkness.
Proper Ornaments was also a highlight on The Now Sound of Christmas split album with Sandler and Young, a recorded radio broadcast presented by The United States Air Force in 1968 (interestingly, Chris Dedrick from The Free Design, later joined the Air Force's Airmen of Note arranging staff, adding his own unusual arrangement style). Proper Ornaments is also included here in its mono version.
For the best of the mellow and dreamy, there's My Brother Woody which was written for Chris' 8 year old brother Woody, whose real name was Jason, and who formed a group called Wo and Woody with his second cousin. It's a wonderful song that captures the essence of youth.
Stay Another Season started as a poem, is the longest track on the album (the last track) and has a tv soundtrack feel to it. You can see why they worked on some advertising jingles (like Chapstick) when you hear this track - though the poetic lyrics bend the concept of the jingle.
Never Tell The World was written by Sandy and Stephanie and its got an urgency to it which makes it feel like the only not totally formed track, because it seems a bit rushed.
The Free Design also tried their hand at three covers on Kites Are Fun - and like how Sandler & Young would transform their covers to be totally different than the originals, The Free Design take Simon & Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song, The Beatles' Michelle, and Francis Lai's A Man And A Woman, and transforms them into the perfectly unique sound that is only The Free Design.