Strange Free World – Kitchens of Distinction (1991)

Strange Free World album cover
Strange Free World album cover

Kitchens of Distinction (KOD) at first listen could be mistaken for the Cocteau Twins. That is before you hear Patrick Fitzgerald’s voice. While comparisons to the Twins are enviable, Kitchens of Distinction had a totally different take on the wall of sound concept. For one, KOD sang about deeply personal and often political matters in plain understandable English. Fitzgerald, who along with Julian Swales on guitar and Dan Goodwin on drums formed the basis of the band. Fitzgerald was actually a doctor, who put his medical practice on hold by the time the band’s second record Strange Free World was released, so you knew this was gonna be something more than your typical cat and mouse themed pop album.

Produced by Hugh Jones of Echo and the Bunnymen fame, Strange Free World was an ambitious recording with songs that were nontraditional in their composition. Songs like the tightly structured “Polaroids” or “Quick as Rainbows” would end in a rousing crescendo of dense sound in that wind up kind of way early U2 songs once were. The beautiful shimmering string sounds were made with only one effects-laden guitar, leading to the aforementioned comparisons to the Cocteau Twins (who used two guitars). By all accounts, Kitchens of Distinction should have been the breakout band of the early 90s as the hit single “Drive that Fast” had made the transition from college radio to the newly minted progressive rock radio format.

While the band was critically acclaimed and were gaining popular acceptance, I can’t help but wonder if the personal politics and sexuality of two voices of the band (Swales and Fitzgearld) sabotaged their efforts to promote their music. They were snubbed by some media outlets or had to make an effort to be featured on shows like John Peel’s radio show. In a time when openly gay rock stars was still rare, the occasional song  about man love and longing probably did not devoted fans, but outside that bubble it was still a very hostile homophobic world. It was the early 90s and only artist making club scene dance music could have gotten away with that (Pet Shop Boys for instance).

The band stuck to their principals and sang about whatever moved them, endearing them ever more to a small but growing fan base. The 10 tracks that made up Strange Free World represent KOD at their best. Beyond the two singles  “Drive that Fast and “Quick as Rainbows” there was plenty more to recommend from this album. Things were looking up as the band was finally getting the attention of the broader media.

The old Chinese saying “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”, could have applied KODs short run of notoriety.  After the critical acceptance and modest sales of Strange Free World,  the next two releases were largely ignored by all but the most devoted fans. By 1996 the band called it quits. They made a surprise return in 2013 with the album Folly, to the delight of fans and critics.

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