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Imagine what a JC Penney catalog from 1970 would sound like. The exact opposite of those Caretaker albums. -Ian!

The commercial failure of the Free Design remains one of the most baffling mysteries in the annals of pop music — with their exquisitely celestial harmonies, lighter-than-air melodies and blissful arrangements, the group’s records were on par with the work of superstar contemporaries like the Beach Boys, the Association and the Cowsills, yet none of their singles even cracked the Hot 100. The Free Design originally comprised siblings Chris, Bruce and Sandy Dedrick, natives of Delevan, New York whose father Art served as a trombonist and arranger with Vaughn Monroe; when Chris moved to New York City in 1966 to attend the Manhattan School of Music, he recruited Bruce (now living on Long Island) and Sandy (a teacher in Queens) to form a folk group, and soon the trio emerged as a popular attraction on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit.

“It’s a young thing — and it’s a different thing!” — so proclaimed the back cover of the handsome gatefold jacket on the Free Design’s debut album, in words that couldn’t have dissuaded more people under 30 from buying the album if the makers had tried. And that’s a crying shame, because Kites Are Fun was a glorious product of the same zeitgeist that yielded the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and a dozen other triumphant pop-psychedelic albums. Kites Are Fun is almost an East Coast answer to the work of the Mamas & the Papas or Spanky & Our Gang, falling between the former at their most subtle and the latter at their most ethereal. The album is very much a product of its era, a lyrical, boundlessly cheerful body of music featuring gentle orchestral accompaniment and glittering sound, and some of it — such as “Make the Madness Stop” — possesses a vaguely spiritual content. Sandy Dedrick gets a brilliant solo showcase on “When Love Is Young,” while “The Proper Ornaments” returned to a group setting with elegant trumpet and cello accompaniment. There’s at least one follow-up to “Kites Are Fun,” entitled “Umbrellas,” that should have gotten a hearing, and a swinging, upbeat showcase for all of the singers entitled “Never Tell the World”; and, in addition to the group members’ originals, the 13 songs include highly ornate covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” and the Beatles’ “Michelle” (beautifully deconstructing both songs and re-imagining them with new tempi and choruses), and the movie-spawned hit “A Man and a Woman.” It’s all worth tracking down in used-record bins (the jacket is a beautiful artifact of its era) or buying on remastered CD.

On the Free Design’s 1970 record, Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love, not much has changed with the Dedrick clan. The group’s amazing vocal harmonies are still very much in evidence, the lush arrangements are still fuller than Grizzly Adams’ beard, and the songs, like the cute and silly “Kije’s Ouija” and the finger-snappingly groovy “Keep Off Your Frown” (which sounds like an unlikely cross between Oscar Brown, Jr. and the Zombies), are still lighthearted and fun. Most of the songs sound like they exist in the the Dedricks’ own strange little world of harmony and childlike innocence; the only one that sounds influenced by the times is “I’m a Yogi,” which has sitars, a mild psychedelic break, and groovy lyrics. It sounds more like Yogi Bear than the Maharishi, but then that is the charm of the Free Design. The record is filled with some of the band’s best work: the bouncy, perky “Bubbles” (a song later covered by Dressy Bessy on the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack record); the sweet “Butterflies Are Free,” which features the Dedrick sisters on lead vocals; the brash (for them) “That’s All, People,” which sounds like a lost Jimmy Webb track, with great vocal interplay among the siblings; and the strangely bossy Christmas tune “Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas).” The only track that falls short is their cover of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which is the rare Free Design effort that sounds like run-of-the-mill elevator music. Pretty much any Free Design recording is going to be a treasure for fans of intelligent, witty, and above all, sophisticated sunshine pop. Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love is no exception.

-Tim Sendra, allmusic.com

DOWNLOAD:
KITES ARE FUN (1967)
STARS/TIME/BUBBLES/LOVE (1970)
256kbps

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2 Comments

  1. Kites Are Fun has been one of my favorite records since hearing it in 2005. I use this album as a sort of litmus test when making new friends– if new friend in question doesn’t think My Brother Woody is both beautiful and hilarious, then I immediately decide that this person will have a hard time accessing any part of my psyche. I have a freakish obsession with the 59th Street Bridge Song, and the Free Design’s version is probably the best one of I’ve heard. I’m not quite as into Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love, but I recommend finding the song “I Found Love”– not sure what album it’s on.

  2. Hi from CyThanks for this share, which I have been searching for but only found having downloaded Yoko Ono earlier. Your site is an Alladin's Cave and I will return.What I like about The Free Design is that on listening to their music, the past is made present.There was a time when music was made as classy as this.A kite is not just something that flutters in the blue sky, given time it could brush a mountain away, given time.Cy from Pck.


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