Music

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

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image