February 10, 2009

Mod-A-Day: The Free Design

From the where are they now file, or maybe the how couldn't they have made it file, it's The Free Design. More Cowsills than the Cowsills, more harmonizing than the Beach Boys, and just ever so much and more so than The Hi-Los or the Lemon Pipers, and yet, The Free Design went hitless and largely unheralded throughout their seven year existence. Never mind that they released an album every year.

The brother/sister combo oozed talent. The vocal harmonies were spot on and the arrangements near perfect. The group's blending of jazz with sunshine pop had them riding the edges of two very popular musical genres of the day, but without ever getting the proper accolades they deserved for each. They had a musical complexity that somehow was lost under the sugary surfaces of their pop vocal stylings. Their originals were more folksy then the covers they did, most of which had layers and layers of jazz stylings. Take for instance their cover of Summertime, with the overall jazz arrangement, the jazz riffing trumpets, and a dusky, jazz tinged female singer that wouldn't be out of place on a Portishead album, and a Georgie Fame-like male vocal as well. Really a thing of beauty when you hear it.

It wasn't until the rebirth of easy listening within the cocktail music revival of the 90s that The Free Design began to be noticed. A number of bands and artists were either clearly influenced -- such as Stereolab, Pizzicato Five, and Pink Martini -- or claimed The Free Design as an influence -- such as Moby, Portishead, or even Dressy Bessy -- and the band's hipster cachet went through the roof. As did the prices of their used vinyl.

"Kites Are Fun" the band's only "hit" song wasn't much of a hit at all, not even breaking into the pop charts top 100. Even with production help from the likes of Enoch Light, and distribution on his elite Project 3 label they just never managed to garner much of a following. Interestingly, this wasn't lost on the band at all and in 1969 for their Heaven/Earth album they actually wrote a song about their growing desperation for a chart hit "2002 - A Hit Song."
Promotion will cause a big commotion
So, deejay, teenie bopper answer me this:
How can this hit miss?
We’ve done it all right and sealed it with a kiss.
There’s just one fact that we can’t quite shirk:
We did all this last time, and it did not work!

But! this time we’re sure to have a hit, hit, hit.
Sure to be a hit.
Alas, so much for the power of positive thinking.

The Free Design-- 2002 - A Hit Song