The Free Design, like other artists, owe their popular resurgence to that strange urge of record collectors to sift through all the cheap vinyl albums discounted as “cheesy” or “too mainstream” by the average rock and roll fan. There was a time when Martin Denny, Nancy Sinatra, and Burt Bacharach were regarded as square as possible, and now they are praised to the point of boredom by the hippest of the hippest. These same idiosyncratic voices of coolness were responsible for the resurrection of the Free Design.
The Free Design were a family band in the sixties who sounded superficially like the Cowsills but differed from their peers by creating a lush mix of complex instrumentation and breathless harmonies. It is intoxicating stuff, but who would have ever heard about it if countless indie rock artists hadn’t mentioned them in passing during interviews or a tiny record label had not decided to give them a deluxe reissue campaign. I wouldn’t have known that a pristine copy of their debut album Kites are Fun was a must-buy in the dollar vinyl bin if Stereolab had not named their catchiest song after the band.
Stereolab, and roughly 21 other acts, have grouped on this remix collection to further champion the unassuming, AM-geared Free Design in a glutted world where gangsta rap and post-grunge rule the airwaves. The Now Sound Redesigned collects two vinyl albums worth of material onto one CD. The number and variety of artists is astounding. Sure, the High Llamas, Super Furry Animals, and Belle & Sebastian’s Chris Geddes show plenty of stylistic connections with the Free Design, but what about Madlib, Kid Koala, and Danger Mouse? How could the Free Design’s sunshine pop fit in the context of alternative hip-hop?
Surprisingly, some of the attempts to add a hip-hop groove to Free Design’s arrangements actually preserve the band’s heartwarming beauty and sincerity while maintaining a contemporary sound. Peanut Butter World and Madlib are careful to keep the songs’ melodic structure relatively secure, using it as a base for further musical riffing in the opening two tracks. The Koushik & Dudley Perkins take on “Don’t Cry Baby” even incorporates a Perkins rap that seamlessly fits into the somewhat dated song where lead singer Chris Dedrick sings about wiggling his ears to please his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the Danger Mouse re-mix of “To a Black Boy” features Murs doing a stirring rap on racial profiling and the twisting of sex crime laws that would work on its own but disrupts the overall tone of this album.
Other artists try to reinvent the concept of the remix. Stereolab and the High Llamas theoretically team together, conveniently ignoring the fact that High Llamas mastermind Sean O’Hagan is already basically an unofficial member of Stereolab, for “Harve Daley Hix”, an unusual remix that actually takes bits and pieces of some of the finest instrumental pieces from a variety of Free Design songs and creates sort of a mini-symphony out of them. On “I Found Love”, Styrofoam teams up with singer Sarah Shannon to essentially create a beautiful beast that is half-remix and half-cover. Caribou (who I still call Manitoba, Dictators singer be damned) takes on “Dartan Benediction” and turns it into a huge jazz-rock epic that sounds really interesting on paper but lacks any sort of melodic direction. (Ironically, he praises the Free Design in the liner notes for not indulging in jam tracks).
The problem with the collection is that no matter how good the remix is, no matter how wonderfully the remixers have reimagined the Free Design’s work, they never really transcend the source material. Even when Madlib keeps the essential melody to “Where Do I Go”, I find myself wanting to hear the original version in its entirety. “Harve Daley Hix” just provides enough bits of sonic wonderment to entice, but it never fulfills. The one track that I enjoyed the most was Chris Geddes and Hush Puppy’s remake of the Free Design’s shockingly cynical “2002 - A Hit Song”, and that was because they stay fairly close to the structure of the original’s verses and choruses for at least the first half.
Ultimately, this collection just makes me want to dust off the turntable and put on my copy of Kites are Fun. Then again, if it interests other people into checking out the original work by this still-underappreciated band, then I suppose the collection has succeeded in its mission.