The Free Design Reviews

Cosmic Peekaboo

Marina Records

Uncut:
"Easy listening hasn't sounded this good for ages." (4/01)

Stereoplay - Album Of The Month:
"Die 60er Jahre begannen musikalisch mit Phil Spectors 'Wall Of Sound' und klangen aus mit den Gitarrenbreitseiten der Stuermer und Draenger des psychedelischen Underground. Und was war da noch? Nun, auch das andere Ende der Laerm- und Gefuehlsskala erwies sich für kreative Geister als reiches Betaetigungsfeld. So waren die Sixties ebenso eine Bluetezeit der himmlischen Harmonien, der samtweichen Melodien und vertraeumten Stimmungsbilder. Man denke nur an die Beach Boys, Turtles, Association, Cowsills ­ oder an The Free Design, die 1966 im Folk-Umfeld des New Yorker Greenwich Village auftauchten, zwischen 1967 und 1973 sieben Alben aufnahmen, es aber nie in die Pop-Charts schafften und sich schliesslich 1975 aufloesten. Bandkopf Chris Dedrick arrangierte und komponierte fuer The Canadian Brass, auch zahllose Auftraege als Soundtracklieferant in Kanada sorgten dafuer, dass er nicht an Langeweile litt. Sensible juengere Pop-Neutoener wie The High Llamas oder Saint Etienne, die immer wieder beharrlich den großen Einfluss von The Free Design auf ihre eigene Musik betonten, hielten derweil die Erinnerung an diese Gruppe wach. Anlaesslich des Beach-Boys-Tributes 'Caroline Now!' fand die Band nun kuerzlich wieder in Originalbesetzung zusammen ­ und legt gleich ein nagelneues Album nach, eines obendrein, das mit zwoelf makellosen Harmony-Pop-Perlen puren Zauber verstroemt. Die praezisen mehrstimmigen Vokalsaetze lassen oftmals an Manhattan Transfer denken, doch so 'easy' wie deren Jazz-grundiertes Entertainment sind die Songs von Dedrick & Co. nicht. 'Cosmic Peekaboo' gewinnt seinen delikaten Charme durch die raffinierten Arrangements ­ und durch einen zart-melancholischen Unterton, der die Musik in die Naehe von Folkpop-Feingeistern wie My Friend The Chocolate Cake rueckt. Dieses geschmackvolle Understatement ist schon wieder spektakulaer!" (Stereoplay, 03/01)

LA Weekly:
"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 line-up 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 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'), 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."

Spiegel Reporter:
"Das erstaunlichste Comeback dieser Popsaison. Das Resultat ist faszinierend. Eine Musik, die keine Spuren der vergangenen Jahrzehnte traegt und immer noch wundersam losgeloest von allem Irdischen klingt. Schwebende Melodien, die heute auch die 'Wallpaper'-Generation begluecken duerften." (4/01)

Alternative Press:
"Fabulous. It sounds like they've never been away."

MOJO:
"Almost total re-formation of legendary orch-pop sister act. Stereolab dig 'em. One of the most exciting events of the last decade for harmony pop fans was the rediscovery of The Free Design's half dozen peerless LPs. From '67 to '72 the sibling quartet sang like jazz-coached angels to no commercial avail. A reunion for last year's Caroline, Now! Beach Boys tribute has been extended to this new set of originals. Sadly, the sister with the sweetest voice - Ellen Dedrick - wasn't in town, but the uncanny resemblance of her replacement, Rebecca Pellett, means you really wouldn't notice. The sustained purity and perfect tone of the Dedrick harmonies makes you want to renounce all trace of a rockin' lifestyle - truly, it sounds like they haven't aged a day. As for the arrangements, only the occasional intrusion of a soprano sax gives away the fact that this wasn't recorded in 1974. Most importantly, Peekaboo, McCarran Airport and especially the super-melancholy Springtime rank alongside their best ever songs and performances." (Bob Stanley - 03/01)

Cool and Strange Music:
"This new release sounds like it could have come out in 1974, following their string of great albums. The vocal harmonies and gentle arrangements are there in full force. Peekaboo is definitely a song to play over and over. On the cut Younger Son they quote older material by singing, '... you believed that kites are fun.' It's an enjoyable outing by an enjoyable group. If you have not heard The Free Design, but enjoy the sounds of groups like The Beach Boys and Carpenters you will surely dig this group that has become purveyors of generating pop masterpieces." (02/01)

Intro:
"Da kann man mal sehen, was mit persoenlichen Visionen so alles zu erreichen ist. Marina, das Label fuer sonderliche Ueberraschungen, praesentiert ­ inspiriert von einem Beitrag zum letztjaehrigen Brian-Wilson-Tribute ­ die Reunion einer nur Insidern bekannten Band aus den schwinging Sixties namens The Free Design. Den Kern des Projekts bilden die Geschwister Dedrick ­ alle so um die 50. That's what I call Alterswerk. Gerade deshalb hebt es sich aber ­ bar jedweder Vergleichsmoeglichkeiten ­ von der ueblichen VOE-Realitaet ab. Altmodischer, aber hoechst lebendiger Harmoniegesang, der sich beim Jazz genauso bedient wie beim Folk und der aufgrund der Vielschichtigkeit und Komplexitaet durchaus auch in der Naehe der Beach Boys angesiedelt werden kann. Nachgewachsene wie Stereolab, Saint Etienne oder Cornelius (der die alten FD-Scheiben in Japan soeben wiederveroeffentlichte) wissen diese Qualitaeten durchaus zu schaetzen. Und somit bietet diese zeitlose Scheibe genuegend Stoff fuer Leute, die Ungewoehnliches lieben und Wert auf solides Songwriting legen." (3/01)

Billboard:
"Cosmic Peekaboo showcases the Free Design's unique sound and original writing at their best lighter-than-air, dazzingly layered, and briskly melodic." (24th February, 2001)

Rolling Stone:
"Die Rueckkehr nach 28 Jahren kuendigte sich nur zaghaft an: Auf der vortrefflichen letztjaehrigen Compilation Caroline Now! - The Songs Of Brian Wilson And The Beach Boys verliehen der idiosynkratische Chris Dedrick und seine Formation The Free Design dem ruehrigen Endless Harmony einen neuen Anstrich. Aus der geplanten One-Off-Wiedervereinigung wurden letztlich doch elf vollkommen neue Songs und dies in der selben Besetzung, die vor 34 (!) Jahren debuetierte. Welch Wunder, dass Cosmic Peekaboo klingt wie aus der Zeit gefallen und mit den herkoemmlichen Massstaeben nur schwer zu messen ist. Als vager Vergleich sollten die klassischen Vocal-Groups, Jimmy Webb, die Beach Boys und die cherubinischen, voellig zu Unrecht in mancherlei Kreisen verpoenten Carpenters genuegen. Mit anderen Worten: Musik von einem anderen Stern. Klar, dass bei soviel Wohlklang und Eleganz, die Cosmic Peekaboo zweifellos versprueht, auch die Gefahrenquellen nicht weit sind: Gesaeusel. Muzak. Esoterik. New-Age. Mike Oldfield. Enya. Diese Klippen umschiffen The Free Design souveraen und bedauern mal augenzwinkernd und mit viel Humor, mal ein bisschen zu ambitioniert und sophisticated den Verfall der Musikkultur: Im beschwingten The Hook heisst es: 'All the pretty young singers with their popular songs / kind of short on meaning but the beat goes on / we all fall asleep unless the chorus is the hook'. Bei allem wohl gemeinten Spott: Die ergrauten Veteranen koennen ihn sich anscheinend leisten, zumal sich Bands wie Stereolab, Saint Etienne oder die High Llamas nur mit grosser Ehrfurcht zu den mehrstimmig agierenden New Yorkern aeussern. Der Abschluss Perfect Love bedient sich wieder der ganz grossen Geste: 'In this world there's a mystery, and its name is love / There's no time or place that love cannot be found'. Der Rest ist Liebe." (3/01)

New Music Monthly:
"Before Stereolab wrote a song called 'The Free Design', there was a band who went by that name ­ a never-really-well-known '60s outfit, remembered only for one minor hit, the light, bubblegummy 'Kites Are Fun'. Then Stereolab namechecked them, Cornelius reissued them, and Saint Etienne mentioned them in interviews. Suddenly, this obscure band was popular enough to reunite with its original lineup. Since the Free Design haven't been an active band for 30-plus years their sound seems totally unchanged by time. Only the sharper recording quality distinguishes 'Cosmic Peekaboo' from the albums they made three decades ago. Never really a rock band, the Free Design still does pop in the purest sense ­ with lots of breezy male/female harmonies, sighing strings, horns out of a Bacharach soundtrack, and an elegant, bachelor-pad feel. It's easy to hear why Stereolab loves them. And it's also no mystery why the Free Design was so irrelevant in 1967, when this kind of warm fluff was the last thing anybody hip wanted to hear. But it sure sounds current right now, and the tongue-in-cheek 'The Hook' sounds like a college radio shoe-in. Take this as proof that Huey Lewis was right: It's hip to be square." (CMJ ­ 03/01)


 
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