The Free Design was a New York family act that played light, airy sunshine pop and somehow released six LPs between 1967 and 1972 without ever landing a significant hit. But like a lot of the musicians of its era and style, The Free Design has been rediscovered by crate-digging DJs and vinyl fetishists, who've attempted decades after the fact to reconcile Chris Dedrick's childlike lyrics, sophisticated harmonies, and avant-garde packaging. Was The Free Design just a trippier, amateur version of The 5th Dimension, or was there something savvy and self-aware about Dedrick's naïveté? Is his appeal ironic or sincere?
A handful of Free Design fans explore their love on The Free Design: The Now Sound Redesigned, which collects two previously released EPs and adds some new material. Some of the tracks are straight remixes, like the reworking of the wry "2002A Hit Song," on which Belle & Sebastian's Chris Geddes just spruces up the original track with glitch-pop interludes. Some of the tracks are complete re-dos, like Styrofoam's cover of "I Found Love," which adds new vocals and guitar. And then there's Stereolab and The High Llamas, who collaborate on an abstract sound-sculpture built from a number of different Free Design songs. But the best tracks on The Now Sound Redesigned fuse Dedrick's originals with some significant aspect of the remixer's personality, like Madlib's breakbeat-happy take on the baroque, essentially rhythmless "Where Do I Go," and Caribou's drawn-out, incantatory version of the reverent "Dorian Benediction." By the time Peanut Butter Wolf gets around to embellishing the swinging "Umbrellas" with rubbery funk and Steve Miller samplesmaking sunshine pop and '70s fusion into one long, sturdy chainit becomes clear that this anthology's heroes are the ones who can express through their own music how The Free Design sounds to them.
It's unclear whether the acts behind Dimension Mix: The Music Of Bruce Haack And Esther Nelson have as much of a plan in mind. Haack and Nelson collaborated on a series of proto-electronica children's records in the '60s, and a lot of their work only makes sense in its original context, with its original sounds. Not even Beckor perhaps especially not Beckcan improve the stunted, singsong "Funky Lil' Song" by making it lugubrious. Too many of the remakes and remixes on Dimension Mix sound cheap, tinny, and overlong, and the lack of any liner notes does a disservice to the artists and to Haack and Nelson. Only a few tracks really stand out: Stereolab's whizzy, mostly instrumental version of "Mudra," The Apples In Stereo's futurist country vision of "Liza Jane," and Anubian Lights' straight-faced presentation of the psychedelic story-song "Walking Eagle." Sales of the collection benefit autism charities, which is eminently worthy, but as a real tribute to Haack and Nelson, maybe some money could be spent on getting their original recordings back in print.