The Free Design are one of the many pop groups of the past getting more attention now than they did when they were together, thanks to the international interest these days in all things pop. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, they recorded seven albums which capture that quintessentially ’60s spirit of universal love and harmony, through bubblegum pop centered on intricate vocal harmonies. Now that their albums are getting reissued and they’re getting notice from the younger “indie-pop” set, three of the four original members (siblings Chris, Sandy and Bruce Dedrick) joined up with the younger, though equally talented vocalist Rebecca Pellett to record a new album.
Cosmic Peekaboo, their comeback album, has the same spirit, with lyrics about nature, love, spirituality and the life-affirming force of music. Their lyrics are optimistic but not naïve; lead songwriter Chris Dedrick writes things like “Love is the only treasure”, but then tempers it by addressing failure, sadness and the inevitability of goodbyes.
The Free Design have landed in the new millennium with their spirit and intent intact, plus still-beautiful voices — so why is this album so hard to listen to? Even their best work of the past always treaded that fine line between giddy expressions of love and “gag me” cheesiness. Here, with a musical background taken straight off your local “smooth jazz” or “easy listening” radio station, they take a soaring leap into the latter territory. While the foursome’s vocals blend magnificently, in a style similar but almost even more layered than that of the Beach Boys, they also sing with an all-too-serious tone usually reserved for hyper-Christian folk singers, the background songs at theme parks (especially those at Disney’s EPCOT Center) or The Fifth Dimension, probably my least favorite group of all time. The fact they’re set to a musical bed of piano, keyboards and Kenny G-style saxophone doesn’t help.
Comeback albums always come with high expectations, and I’m sure that the most diehard fans of The Free Design, the ones who have been waiting anxiously since 1973 for another album, will like this better than I. But for me, raised on rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, this album sounds way too much like the worst parts of my parents’ record collection, the parts the made me glad I grew up in the time period that I did.