Thursday, August 12, 2010

RIP Chris Dedrick

I'm six days late hearing about this, but the Baronette just passed the news on to me that Chris Dedrick of the Free Design has died. Or, in the lovelier way his wife Moira put it in a post to his blog, "Chris, after a week of increasing radiance, yet with rapid physical decline, passed away peacefully at home."

The person who first introduced me to the Free Design, years ago, described them as "making the Carpenters sound abrasive." And it's true. These harmonies are sweet almost to the point of sickliness, as are the arrangements. The lyrics are the same: "I like flying kites. Kites are fun." But it can be truly exhilarating to watch them dance on that particular precipice.

Their best songs are about how little we need all the trappings of our society that feel so essential. In "Kites Are Fun," they sing (the "we" referring to the narrator of the song, who is an individual despite the multitude of voices singing his or her narrative, and to the kite itself) "We'd like to be a zillion miles away from everyone," and it's like their manifesto. They don't want to be so far away out of a desire for solitude, but rather because "Mom and Dad and and Uncle Bill" (authority figures, teaching the child narrator the rules of the society he or she must live in) "don't realize/Kites are fun." In a way that, I find, seldom works, they use not the innocence (which is nonsense, and what makes this sort of thing usually fail) but the unburdened freedom of childhood to remind us: things don't have to be this way. You can just take pleasure in simple things and let the repressions we layer upon ourselves fall away.

Later on on the same album, "Umbrellas" moves this message explicitly into the world of adults, in a joyful ode to that enemy of the workday commuter--heavy rain. In this context, if you come at it from the right angle, even the simple love songs that make up the bulk of their catalog can feel revolutionary.

Probably my favorite songs of theirs are "The Proper Ornaments," also from Kites are Fun, and "2002 - A Hit Song" (from Heaven/Earth). "The Proper Ornaments" is the message I've been talking about at its most explicit: "your brand new car," "your pretty wife whom you almost love," "your color TV set and your impressive pad," "your little baby girl you're almost glad you had," all these and more are the proper ornaments of life. But "What is in your mind and heart/That's hidden by your face/Behind the ornaments of your life?"

"2002 - A Hit Song" is pretty obviously about Dedrick's bitterness at making some of the loveliest music ever recorded and never (as of 1969, anyway) getting any real recognition for it. Maybe by 2002, they're saying, we'll have a hit. The lyrics here are clever and funny ("Hello, teenybopper/Hello, DJ/We're gonna sing a whopper/And you're gonna make it pay for us"), though admittedly not as significant to me as in some of their other songs. Still, it's fascinating to hear such bitterness sung in such a bubbly fashion, to hear the anger that results when those who attempt to live real lives and experience real joy try to play by the rules of a culture that squashes these attempts.

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