Happy new year to you all, and may the best day of 2013 equal the worst in 2014. The end of the old year / beginning of the new year inevitably spawns all kinds of Best Of-lists. I am ambivalent about those. Yes, it can be interesting to have a round-up of the best of whatever from the last year, but on the other hand… it's just yet another list. Trying to cram the richness and diversity of a whole year in a restricted number of items seems limiting. The one list that jumped out to me was Pitchfork's Top 25 Album Covers of 2013, but not for the intended reasons. The music website makes great use of the web font FF Spinoza as a text face, one of the lesser-known gems in the FontFont library. It's just a shame that the micro-typography is not very well cared for. Fix those apostrophes and quotation marks already!
Regarding the covers in their list, I agree that how the didone is used for Deafheaven's Sunbather is a genius typographic interpretation of the album title. As far as conceptual album covers go Johnathan Barnbrook's bold vision with his own Doctrine (designed in collaboration with Jonathan Abbott and Julian Moncada) blows pretty much everything else out of the water.
No Best Of-list for me, but a regular episode of My Type of Music – an overview of covers of recently released albums. Before you go on, I have to warn you this post ends with the artwork for No Love Deep Web which prominently features a cock with the album title scribbled on it, so proceed cautiously. I included it because it invites a critical discourse about male versus female nudity in the contemporary music landscape, and their different acceptance by society.
The first entry would make you believe we're also tackling the acceptance of bisexuality by society, but no, that's just Robbie Williams having a little double-entendre. Robbie Williams Swings Both Ways is a swing covers (wink wink, nudge nudge, get it?) and duets album from the British pop singer featuring guest appearances from Lily Allen, Michael Bublé, Kelly Clarkson, Olly Murs, and Rufus Wainwright. True to the music genre the album sleeve harkens back to the heydays of the crooners. The photography, both composition and image quality; the blue/yellow/pink colour scheme; and the typography – Alternate Gothic for the album title and the wide gothic ITC Blair for the credits – painstakingly mimic the visual style of the late fifties and sixties. Pretty as it may be, ultimately this exercise in vintage style feels vapid. There is no surprise, no twist, no delight, just an offensively non-offensive solution that caters to the lowest common denominator. I expected a little better from the "bad boy" of British pop.
To extend the Christmas cheer just a tiny little longer here's the mildly funny (now that's damning with praise) yet equally comforting and safe retro-looking official video for Dream A Little Dream. It really feels like he's trying too hard.
And here we have Gary Barlow hot on the heels of his former colleague in Take That. Since I Saw You Last includes songs co-written with the slightly more successful Robbie Williams, Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley, and John Shanks, as well as a duet with Elton John. Funny anecdote – the BBC went so much overboard with the release of the album and the holiday season that the British public suffered a Barlowdigestion, even sparking protests from the more vocal part of the general audience.
Exquise FY, a friendly and playful interpretation of the Didone model, accompanies the former has-been and X-Factor judge's immaculately groomed scruffiness in stylish black-and-white. Those eyes… : P
I almost glossed over the artwork for Andrew Bird's I Want to See Pulaski at Night, the largely instrumental seven-track EP built around the song Pulaski at Night. What looked like a gratuitous little scribble turned out to be a brilliantly concise graphic interpretation of the artist's name upon closer inspection. The determined and energetic line drawing depicts a stylised bird. Barely a sketch, this deceptively casual solution channels the genius of Roger Excoffon's brush strokes on his classic poster for Air France. Normally I would suggest a contrasting typographic solution to create some tension, but in this case the quick, natural scrawling works wonderfully well. Oops, that final alliteration wasn't intentional. : )
I often listen to a song or two from the albums whose covers I review, to examine how the artwork relates to the music style and the albums' themes. Barely halfway the first verse of Waiting For Superman, the single taken from Daughtry's Baptized, I had an uncontrollable laugh attack. Rarely was I subjected to music and lyrics that were so pedestrian and phoned in by a band that I expected to be credible. Discovering that the American rock band is fronted by a finalist on the fifth season of American Idol explained everything. Disregarding the laughable crappiness of the music, the covers for both the full album and the single are quite lovely. Granted, the dead-flowers-on-cityscape in combination with distressed typewriter type looks a little dated (nineties neo-grunge) but the double-exposure in the woman's hair lend the single's sleeve a nice dreamy atmosphere.
The spirit of the late, great Storm Thorgerson is strong in the artwork for Fellow Travelers. The cover release from indie band Shearwater consists entirely of songs by bands they've toured with over the years, including The Baptist Generals, David Thomas Broughton, Clinic, Coldplay, Sharon Van Etten, Folk Implosion, Wye Oak, and Xiu Xiu. Shearwater's vocalist Jonathan Meiburg selected the images for the front and back cover and inner sleeve from Kahn & Selesnick's Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea series.
Jonathan Meiburg | "Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick have done all our album covers since 2008; there's something about their aesthetic that really clicks with me. For Fellow Travelers, I thought that their Mars series – with its mysterious figures wandering in an alien landscape – beautifully evoked the feelings of isolation, dislocation, and occasional transcendence that are the hallmarks of touring life. I especially liked the cover image, Symbiosis. Though they're facing in opposite directions, the two figures seem to be growing into one another. This reflects the ways that bands that tour together – or any group of people thrust into close quarters with one another – inevitably affect and infect each other, whether they like it or not."
Jeff Kleinsmith of Sub Pop designed the packaging and the liner notes, with Neue Haas Grotesk as the cover typeface.
Berlin-based British electronic artist Steven Warwick operates under the alias Heatsick. He describes his latest release Re-Engineering as a "cybernetic poem". The typographic assemblage using Optima is reminiscent of the classic logo designed by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre for Yves Saint-Laurent in 1961. Bar some minor problems in the connections and intersections the composition has its merits, were it not that it is barely decipherable overlaid on the patterned metal floor. I don't know what the designer was smoking, but this royally ruined the design.
Desert Skies is the previously unreleased debut album from the original lineup of psychedelic country rock band Beachwood Sparks. Chris Gunst, Brent Rademaker, Dave Scher, Josh Schwartz, Dave Scher, Tom Sanford, and Pete Kinne recorded the long player in 1997 in a converted one-car garage. Yasamine June beautifully captured the jangly, summery tunes in her bold artwork.
Yasamine June | "The concept was to complement the experience of the listener. The record serves up sweet melodies over great fuzzy guitar-pop. I wanted to provide artwork that transports the listener to the cosmic Southern California deserts where the sounds of the record were dreamed up. Beachwood Sparks are a fantastic band whose music has its roots deep in the 60s California rock'n'roll sound, along with the 90s indie rock. The intent was to put the look and feel of this record in the tradition of the coastal Southwest, the original home of Beachwood's music and inspiration."
"The hand-lettering on the record cover was inspired by a few different classic California styles. For this record I looked to the graphic tradition of early surf culture, along with personal style digs that resonate deeply through most of my work, like hand-painted signs, and the timeless beauty of Art Deco letterforms. The result is a combination of visual influences, such as the beauty of printed art, the multi-dimensional effect of mixed media, intentionally electric color, and an organic reinvigoration of graphic styles I see as relevant."
"The bold, complementary colors were chosen to convey the intensity of the album. I wanted the cover to be a colorful kaleidoscope to match the psychedelic country rock album of this beloved LA indie band. This album of early recordings is a view of the band at a young and rambunctious stage. The name Desert Skies is an evocative title that embodies the warm Southern California landscape, the band's native environs, and an awe-inspiring setting for dreaming. A place that is sweet, bold, warm, palpably alive and vibrant, yet subtle in its beauty. All these elements moved me to create the feeling of vibrant desert warmth and fuzzed dreamy tinges in the artwork."
I love the warm red-to-yellow hues contrasted with the greyish blues, framed in bold black outlines and high-contrast imagery. Entirely hand-lettered, the design combines an Art Nouveau/psychedelic display style with a slightly angular script. There are some spacing problems in the band name: the 'E' in 'Beachwood' looks shifted to the left, and the 'SPA' in Sparks need to be tightened. Other than that, great work. Dare I say I prefer this to Shepard Fairey's output that starts to look a bit repetitive?
More psychedelic rock, but this time very recent. Skull Worship is the first release in five years for The Warlocks. The Los Angeles band led by Bobby Hecksher includes a new lineup with J.C. Rees, Earl V. Miller, Chris Di Pino, and George Serrano. The striking image was composed by Steve Quenell. While growing up in Northern California during the 70s, the residual effects of San Francisco forever altered the way he saw the world. Steve now lives in Seattle where he creates psychedelic collages.
Steve Quenell | "With all my work I try to find the perfect balance between weird and beautiful in the final composition. The weird often takes the shape of something esoteric and the beautiful often translates to vibrant, almost psychedelic colors. With this particular piece I was really influenced by the Giallo posters for Dario Argento's films and the simplicity of Polish film posters from roughly the same time. I wanted to combine those but with a hint of ceremony or ritual so I added the praying yogi and the diamond pattern to ground the image. To fill the negative space I constructed a kaleidoscopic pattern and laid that behind the whole figure. I was hoping to achieve a sense of psychedelic emanation coming from the eye and I think it worked out pretty well. "
"Music-wise Bobby (Papa Warlock) already had a pretty good idea about what would go well with the music he had written. He kept this in mind while going through the art I submitted for him. I hadn't actually heard the music until the album was released. That said, you just get a feel for what type of aesthetic certain bands like and you keep this in mind when they commission you for work. The Warlocks like it wicked, colorful, and weird."
Personally I feel the album cover suffers from the ham-fisted typography. Making the letters translucent cannot prevent that the butch character shapes of Compacta overpower the gorgeous collage, interfering with its lines and patterns. A better integrated solution would have benefited the artwork.
The album sleeve for What The…, the first release of new material since 1985 from Black Flag, the punk band founded by Greg Ginn, is as disappointing as the music itself. The band's familiar logo is set in ITC's evergreen Friz Quadrata.
Mutual Benefit is the solo project of Brooklyn-based Jordan Lee. His debut full-length release Love's Crushing Diamond was recorded while the singer-songwriter toured across the US. The album sleeve was entirely drawn by hand by Cory Siegler. The artist has her own music project Lizard Kisses with her boyfriend Marc Merza, for which she has done most of the art and design for their releases.
Cory Siegler | "For the concept of the art, the obvious idea Jordan and I had was to have a diamond. I felt like the title Love's Crushing Diamond conveys something really important and momentous, and that's how I feel about the music as well. The album is beautifully crafted and really plays from start to finish as one cohesive piece. I wanted the drawing to reflect that. I wanted the image to be really beautiful and colorful, but also one contained entity, and came up with this kind of simple but bold lettering to go with it. I do a lot of hand lettering in my work – it is more personal and unique that way. It definitely takes a lot longer to draw something by hand, but it's a lot more satisfying too!"
Whether it is intentional or not, the strict geometry of the letter forms throws me off. Certain letters like the 'D' and the 'O' are too narrow, while others like the 'C' and 'N' seem too wide. Having the waist of the letters at the geometrical midpoint makes the top of some letters too big, having them lean to the right. The hand-made quality is very charming, but a basic amount of optical correction would have gone a long way in producing a better balanced text image.
Now that we are on the subject of text, I regret that there is none on the cover for Sum/One by bEEdEEgEE. The debut solo album by Gang Gang Dance's Brian DeGraw features guest vocalists Douglas Armour, Gang Gang Dance's Lizzi Bougatsos, CSS' Lovefoxxx, and Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor. It was released by 4AD, the label that achieved nearly mythical status for its album covers created between 1982 and 1998 by Vaughan Oliver for 23 Envelope and v23. The meticulous integration of inventive, eclectic typography in his adventurous images resulted in daring album sleeves. This makes the absence of any text on this ethereal and beautiful image all the more disappointing.
If you can see past the dubious image quality and shaky sound, I highly recommend watching this 23 Envelope Documentary which focuses on the relation between the design and the music from that prolific era.
Equally ethereal and beautiful is the poetic artwork for the self-titled full-length debut for the Gothenburg-based Sumie (her sister Yukimi is in Little Dragon). The delicately hued illustration was drawn in lovingly detail by her father Yusuke Nagano.
Yusuke Nagano | "This was a fairly easy piece. I had a lot of back-and-forth with Sumie, and I also received much help from Johan Andreasson. We all have a strong connection with her music. In a way I was looking for what her life together with her music means for her. By trying to understand her world I could use my imagination and sketch while listening to the music. After going over and discussing the sketches I got the approval from her make the final drawing."
Far more down-to-earth, the great album cover for Live from KCRW by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – recorded from two appearances at KCRW's Santa Monica studios in April 2013 – shows the band's front man surrounded by recording equipment. This no-nonsense visual is effective and good-looking, exuding the proper mix of nonchalance and rock'n'roll attitude without even trying. The retro colours of the photograph nicely match all-caps Metro, still my favourite vintage geometric sans serif. Recent Reading graduate Toshi Omagari did a terrific job at adapting William Addison Dwiggins' classic face for current-day use.
Produced by the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl (who also appears on drums), The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1, the four-track EP from the country rock band Zac Brown Band, was recorded live on tape in a week. Its sleeve bathes in similar earthy colours. The stained paper effect, creepy photograph of a mechanic monkey and inline Futura remind me of a simpler version of the work of the previously-mentioned Vaughan Oliver / 23 Envelope / v23.
Tyler Bergfield's oil painting Wolf In Ecstasy graces the cover for You Were Right, the sixth full-length solo release for Brendan Benson, the singer-songwriter who previously was a member of The Raconteurs. The antique-looking formal script is Petronella from the Wilton Foundry.
The tastefully titled Black Panties is R. Kelly's 12th full-length studio release, featuring guest appearances from 2 Chainz, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland, and Young Jeezy. It is moving how the cover photograph reveals the R&B singer's deep and genuine respect for the fairer sex. The female model is depicted as a strong human being with feelings and a fully-developed personality by having her sit almost naked on R. Kelly's lap, only dressed in sexy boots and the titular black panties, head submissively buried in his neck while the ignorant piece of crap literally plays her like a frickin' fiddle! This is vile. Not the lovely curls of Parfumerie Script nor the stylish carved features of Engravers can redeem this revolting, sexist display of utter misogyny. Somebody must feel very insecure about the size of his male appendage.
And talking about cocks…
On October 1, 2012, Death Grips sent out a shockwave in the music landscape. The Sacramento noise rap trio effectively ended its contract with Epic by releasing No Love Deep Web for free. Now, almost a year later the nihilist horror rap group officially released the long player on CD/vinyl. Not content by simply cheating their record label out of an album, the cover image is a close-up of an erect cock (no, not of the feathery persuasion) with the album title scribbled on it. As Jon Pappo explains in his 15 Controversial NSFW Album Covers on Chart Attack:
It's a bluntly visceral "ƒu¢k you," "whatever," and "haha," while also being completely not-safe-for-work (and then some). For some, this kind of artwork is a matter of shock and cerebral impulses. For others, it's because boobs and/or penises are cool.
Interestingly, this image (no, not that feathery one but the actual sleeve) invites a debate on how we perceive nudity in commercial art, specifically in the music business. I already broached the subject almost three years ago (see the last two album covers) when comparing the partially nude Beyoncé on the cover for 4 with the completely naked model on Handsome Furs' Sound Kapital, but that examination was still limited to female nudity.
One might argue that I am behaving in a sexist way myself. I have had no qualms about featuring images of naked women on The FontFeed, yet clearly feel the need to censor the artwork for No Love Deep Web. This decision however is based on concerns other than "female nudity is acceptable, male nudity not". It is not because I am opposed to sexism that I am against sensuality, nudity and eroticism in art and design. It is the intention, the context and the perception that help me determine if I find it a valid artistic expression or merely gratuitous (see the previous review). In this case the intention obviously is to shock – this is not a mere male body but an extreme close-up of male genitals in an obvious state of excitement. You simply cannot compare that to the depiction of a female body; a female counterpart of similar intensity would need to be a crotch shot of a hairless vulva, which I would never run on this blog. Completely male nudes? Not a problem for me.
And on this little tangent I leave you until the next installment. May the new year be filled with joy and happiness, and good health!