Monday, April 9, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #54 - Free Design - Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love

There's nothing quite like the vocal harmonies made by brothers and sisters. Something about their growing up together and sharing vocal-cord DNA seems to create an almost telepathic ability to blend perfectly together, and this is why so many of the great harmonizers were families - The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, The Carpenters to name a few obvious ones. This inexplicable magic is never more delightfully shown than on the albums of family band The Free Design.
The Free Design was made up of four Dedrick siblings - girls Sandy and Ellen and brothers Bruce and Chris. Chris Dedrick was also the main arranger and composer of the group, and one of the unsung greats of sunshine pop.
The Free Design made six wonderful albums on Enoch Light's Project 3 label from 1967 to 1972, all of which, no doubt, would have been perceived as very square in those days. These guys were obviously completely removed from the counter-culture or the Woodstock crowd. Forty years on, however, and they look and sound cooler than ever - in a naive, twee pop, post-Stereolab sort of way. The sound is sweet, charming, childlike and effervescent - something like an arty version of The Carpenters (who also have more hipster cred these days than when they were in their hit making heyday).
All the records the Dedricks made were filled with gorgeous, sparkling tracks, with their fourth Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love being the most sparkling of all. Expect lighter than air, sugar sweet easy-pop, Sesame Street-ready anthems to all manner of things: four of which are mentioned in the album title. But when these guys are singing about flying kites, that's what they are talking about – there’s no irony or drug reference here. However, you do get some serious grooves on this record - fabulous picked bass and funky drums are all over the place. This foundation, behind all the delicious layered harmonies, keyboards and jazzy brass is a recipe for sonic heaven.

The best tracks on this album (as on all the 'Design albums) are the Dedrick originals - dynamic, soft-psych songs with adventurous arrangements that would be completely impossible to recreate today. The opener “Bubbles” is a wild wah-wah clavinet-led ode to simple pleasures in 7/8 time, with scintillating intertwining vocals and a killer fuzz guitar solo. Pop music never got more carefree than this. “Kije's Ouija” is an off-the-wall gem about the joys and perils of the occult, set to a tune by Prokofieff. “Starlight” is a divine creation with stacked harmonies and the funkiest waltz beat you'll ever hear. Best of all is the singular “I'm a Yogi” - a blissed-out trip with crazy phased vocals, echoey trumpet and electric sitar. It's actually more psychedelic than most of the bands who played at Monterey Pop, and an essential track for fans of Rotary Connection or David Axelrod. The relatively aggressive “That's all People,” the final track on the original LP, is a brilliant, and deceptively dissonant use of the family's vocals.
In between the originals are covers of standards and a brace of recent classics by Burt Bacharach and Laura Nyro, which are some of the more ambitious tracks on the LP. "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," for example is a master class in vocal and brass arranging, which is seemingly inexplicable to modern untrained indie-pop musicians. The bonus track, a racial harmony hymn called "To A Black Boy" is as good as anything on the LP, and the most out-jazz track on the CD. Overall, this is probably the most satisfying Free Design album, but I'd recommend any and all of them.
This ain't rock 'n' roll, this is gentle genius.

--- Ben Sumner

No comments: