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The Free Design: Paradoxically Radical Psychedelic Pop with "Kites Are Fun"

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Wednesday, Aug 4, 2010
Can a band so sincere be truly trippy?

The year 1967 makes one think of “hard” culture: hard drugs, hard music. It was the year of The Velvet Underground & Nico, Boogie With Canned Heat, Forever Changes, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a year of gritty electric blues and twisted psychedelic pop. Now, hear the sunshine-bubblegum-daisy-puppy pop of “Kites Are Fun”, by the recently rejuvenated family band, the Free Design. Some—persuaded no doubt by the era, the novelty, and the peace and love vibe—would describe the record as psychedelic. But what does that mean?


There’s certainly not much that’s mind-bending about the song’s quiet, precise arrangements, or the hushed falsetto harmonies that croon lines like “I like flying / Flying kites”. The patter of the drums and the gentle thrum of the bass suggest folk or jazz in their least experimental forms. In the song’s refrain, the singers land high on the ‘n’ in “fun” and sustain the note into the next measure; the effect is somewhat comic, since the sung word enacts its connotation of benign and mindless diversion. The orchestral instrumentation, especially the flute, pigeonhole the track into an easy listening vibe rather than expanding its affective vocabulary.
  
The story behind the song would corroborate such classificatory uncertainty. Chris Dedrick, the creative mind behind the band, grew up with the classical and big band traditions, and the record itself was released on a label owned by Enoch Light, a fixture in the old guard of ‘50s and ‘60s recording pioneers. The singers were all siblings, and their father, a prominent jazz trombonist from the ‘40s, was pivotal in the group’s formation and development: the Free Design was very much a family affair. “Kites Are Fun” was its first and most successful single, though it never reached the national Top 40, and one must suspect that its audience was always an older one.


The temptation, then, is to let “Kites Are Fun” glow warmly from the stereo like the embers of a fire long forgotten. The only thing that might save the record from such a fate is the recent Free Design revival, which has solidified its authenticity as a relevant, hip piece of the musical past. The band has been cited as an influence by several contemporary acts, such as Stereolab, and in 2005 Light in the Attic released a Free Design remix album that included contributions from artists as diverse as Madlib and the High Llamas. The excitement reached the point that the group reunited in 2001 for a tour and a new album.


Musical legacy aside, hearing “Kites Are Fun” now is bewildering. There’s something, aside from the haze of ‘60s sentimentalism and the hype of modern anachronism, that makes the song, and the album, sort of trippy. Perhaps it’s the very notion of bringing such sophisticated arrangements and such polished sounds to a song so simplistic and childish that feels paradoxically radical. Quality is one thing, incongruity is another. The lyrics and the mood appear as shallow as a kiddie pool, but the music has an inviting depth. The complexity of the closing segment, with its shifting harmonies and counterpoint, feels absurd and a little bit intoxicating when Dedrick sings “See my kite it’s fun / See my kite it’s fun”. Because as much as you struggle to retain your frumpy adult detachment, and as intelligent and careful as the music sounds, you can’t help but think to yourself: kites are fun.


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