My Type of Music: Brian Wilson, Metallica, Ne-Yo, Calexico, Tricky, The Chemical Brothers
From the onset it became clear that ScreenFonts a.k.a. Characters On The Silver Screen was a very popular category on Unzipped, my blog for FontShop BeNeLux. This made me decide to add a second category, My Type of Music, which examines the covers of recently released records.
While on Unzipped I look at the covers of albums currently being released in Belgium and The Netherlands, here I’ll stick to the American releases. Again my main focus is the type used on the covers, but you can bet I’ll have my say on the overall design as well. Same deal as with ScreenFonts: when there’s nothing interesting to tell about specific album covers I’ll squarely ignore them. It’s not like I haven’t got anything else to do.
The album covers below are from the first half of September.
The delicate and colourful illustration which adorns the otherwise white cover of Fast Paced World, the fourth album by Canadian folk quintet by The Duhks reminds me of stained glass windows or Art Nouveau lead came and copper foil glasswork. It gives an airy and luminescent quality to the design, and almost makes me forgive the album title and band name set in equally delicate grey – but ultimately uninspired and self-indulgent – all lowercase Helvetica. And I personally would have had “the” and “ducks” connect differently. If you’re going for minimal typography you should thoroughly think through every minute detail.
After having the covers for their first two albums Psyence Fiction and Never Never Land designed by Futura2000, UNKLE have chosen painted artwork by Massive Attack member Robert del Naja a.k.a. 3D for their new End Titles: Stories For Film and its predecessor War Stories. No type to be seen, yet truly mesmerizing covers. See also Shynola’s engrossing – but quite unsettling – video for An Eye For An Eye, with animation based on characters by 3D.
That Lucky Old Sun by Brian Wilson has a slightly off-kilter cover. Which is quite appropriate for this artist. Although I’m not so much a kitsch lover myself, I really love this one, with its vibrant colours and sunny motifs, and the clunky blocky outlined and shaded sans caps filled with politically incorrect bright yellow and blue gradients.
Equally colourful is the globe on the cover of Shall Noise Upon by rock trio Apollo Sunshine. It nicely contrasts with the black background which is crammed with very busy white hand drawn illustrations – lots of cosmic imagery to be found. The refined shapes and sharp serifs of the classic centred Perpetua Titling caps work wonderfully well with the drawings.
It’s funny to see how mainstream pop acts can get it wrong even when almost getting it right. The design for The Block by resurrected boys band New Kids On The Block actually isn’t that bad at all. The horizontal division with black-and-white portraits on bright red and orange backgrounds is somewhat reminiscent of classic crooner acts. Yet I have the same remark as with the Duhks album. By making the type a touch smaller the word groups “New” “Kids On The” “Block” in Compacta would’ve synchronized nicely with the vertical colour bands. Now it just looks wrong as “On The” slams into the third band and the “K” carelessly – and literally – crosses the border. This is again one of those cases where attention to details would’ve made for a better design.
As the collage that graces the cover for Strawberry Weed by Swedish rock outfit Caesars is obviously hand made I can only wonder if the title and band name were actually typed or digitally reproduced with FF Magda. The design, with its faded, crudely cut out family photographs and yellowy strips of text exudes a feeling of tenderness and loss, resulting in a beautiful and affecting cover. A lesser-known bit of trivia about FF Magda – it’s one of those “smart” FontFonts that can be layered to achieve a multitude of outline and inline effects.
Somewhat in the same vein is the surprisingly un-metal-like cover for Lost In The Sound Of Separation by Underoath. The hand painted design looks very arts-and-crafts-like, with the colourful V shapes hinting at an ethnic influence.
I suspect the type is either custom-made or a customized version of an existing font; its slightly unbalanced and intentionally awkward shapes reminding me of the heydays of grunge.
The cover for Hummingbird, Go! by Swedish singer Theresa Andersson is also hand painted, depicting a stylized landscape of brightly coloured hills. But I like this one considerably less, and ITC Grimshaw Hand is integrated in the image in a pretty unimaginative way.
I included the next two covers for the photography rather than for the typography. proVISIONS by Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand features a striking image of a woman in a blood splattered white apron holding something that looks like a big dead fish in her bloodied hands. The strength of the picture lies in the fact that both the head of the woman and head and tail of the fish are cropped, thus abstracting the image and lending it a detached atmosphere. I don’t agree with having these humongous painted Trade Gothic characters run over the full width at the bottom, but hey, that’s just me.
And the cover for Sex And Gasoline by Grammy-winning country singer Rodney Crowell looks very rock’n’roll. Not only does he seem pretty dazed and confused – probably due to sleep deprivation, loud music, use of illicit substances or all of the above – but when you look past his tangled hair and feverish eyes you notice the shapely curves of female hips. Yup, that’s one of the perks of being a musician for you. ;) The punk-style typography – Goudy Old Style and Franklin Gothic – was distorted, probably by crumpling the paper and/or moving the original whilst photocopying, so this isn’t Frankie.
I wonder inhowfar the designer of This Is A Fix by The Automatic perused the Barbara Kruger Graphic Standards Manual, as the photograph overlaid with Futura Bold and Bold Italic in a red box looks heavily influenced by the work of American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger.
The cover image for Invisible Cinema is as immaculately groomed as jazz pianist Aaron Parks himself. The earthy monochromatic quality of the picture is very stylish and makes Parks’ face pop up from the background. Above the worn door behind Parks all caps ITC Avant Garde Gothic is combined with Elephant, the peculiar take on British grotesques by Gareth Hague.
The Chemical Brothers go pop art with their new greatest hits compilation Brotherhood. The covers of the singles included in the compilation are reproduced as a checker board of colourful silkscreen prints. It is somewhat reminiscent of U2’s Achtung Baby, but a nice upbeat cover nonetheless.
Like I wrote in my last My Type of Music entry on Unzipped I find Knowle West Boy by Tricky a way too safe album cover for such an adventurous musical talent. There’s a moderate dose of weirdness in the image depicting Tricky wearing a Venetian mask, but the very safe overall composition and big Helvetica Condensed caps don’t really do it for me.
Hey, isn’t this a contender for the LTypI pool? The font on All Or Nothing, the sophomore album for English trio The Subways is Edward Johnston’s type for the London Underground – yep, that’s the British ‘subway’ for you. A-ha! Johnston’s seminal design was originally digitized in 1997 as P22 Johnston Underground. The 1999 version ITC Johnston had the advantage of coming in three weights. Yet the definitive digital version is the recently released feature-rich OpenType Pro family P22 Underground.
Two beautifully designed and illustrated covers in a row. The symmetrical and geometric design Lightbulbs by Fujiya & Miyagi looks like a contemporary take on Art Deco, with gracious sans caps spelling out the band name. Admire the curvacious ampersand. Fun detail: the luminous pattern around the lightbulb refers to the strobe dots on the side of a turntable platter.
Reader Páll Rokk comments that “[t]he Fujiya & Miyagi cover derives from the work of Deutscher Werkbund designer/architect Peter Behrens for AEG. Behrens designed similar ads featuring lightbulbs, as well as the lightbulbs themselves and the factories where they were made. The logo is the giveaway.”
And Carried To Dust is perfectly consistent with the Calexico “corporate identity” of having stencil graffiti-style illustrations on the cover. The strict geometric hand drawn lettering nicely complements the design.
I don’t know about this one. I can’t decide whether I find the album cover for Mothertongue by New York composer Nico Muhly a little intriguing, a little unsavoury or a little self-important. TheallcapsInterstatewithnowordspaces at the bottom of the cover makes me lean toward the latter.
I really need to have either my eyes or my head checked. Yes I know the image on Death Magnetic by Metallica represents a coffin shaped hole with iron shavings revealing magnetic patterns around it. For an album called Death Magnetic? Oooh, how original! What amount of research went into this! Nevertheless, when looking at it from a distance I keep seeing a… errr… well… is it just me?
Read more about the fine-tuning of the classic Metallica logo on Brand New.
The Hungry Saw by Tindersticks on the other hand uses an ingenious metaphor for heartbreak which is translated in a low-key but beautiful image, literally carved in stone and written on the wall (anyone know any more clichés?). The type is obviously hand made, yet looks quite similar to the joyous FF Providence.
Jean-Michel Folon gets updated for the 21st century on the album cover for O Soundtrack My Heart, the first international effort on Warp Records by Australian group Pivot. The art is by French artist Michel Granger, who amongst others provided a series of iconic album covers for French synth legend Jean Michel Jarre. Simple, effective, and drop dead gorgeous.
I just wanted to mention that Hey Ma, the first album in nearly 10 years for British rock band James (a) looks really creepy and makes me feel uneasy, and (b) the band name is set in a customized version of ITC Baskerville – yup, the version with an x-height so big you can drive a truck through it. And the letters on the wooden blocks are Cooper Black of course.
The album cover for Gift Of Screws by ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham strikes a delicate balance between mainstream and indie. The different elements that make up the design – sepia tinted portrait of the artist and classic looking all caps Fedra Sans – are to be expected on a mainstream release. Yet the out of focus and out of centre quality of the photograph gives the design that welcome extra bite. And the position of the type makes it even more interesting – the top of the characters are cut off by the top edge of the cover, part of the type runs over Buckingham’s forehead and hair, and the white letters on the light grey background almost completely fade away. Although at first sight the composition may seem a bit disorderly, I find the typography actually very thoughtful and solid.
Far less thoughtful and solid is Year Of The Gentleman by R&B singer Ne-Yo. We have similar design elements that make up the album cover, but this time the end result is truly disorderly and forgettable. Setting the artist’s name in Helvetica caps is an uninspired move, and let’s be honest, it just doesn’t look good. Fair enough, the album title in Bickham Script is adequately composed, using the correct swashes (which hardly is the merit of the designer as they are handled automatically in the OpenType Pro version). But the way they’ve both been lumped together in that nondescript and cluttered area of the image just ruins this cover.
This proves that to achieve good and readable typography you have to carefully balance the different criteria, just like in a mathematical equation. In both examples the readability is diminished, and the context determines how successful the designers deal with this.
In the Buckingham cover the white letters on light background indeed tend to blend in (negative value), so this is compensated by using large type (positive value) in a simple and straightforward composition (positive value). This in turn gives the designer enough leeway to cut off the top of the characters in the first line (slightly negative value) and use pretty tight tracking and leading (slightly negative value).
Conversely, in the Ne-Yo cover the type is positioned in a busy area of the image with contrasting light and dark elements (negative value). The juxtaposition of the sans caps and swashy script looks convoluted (negative value), and part of the black type is poorly readable against those dark elements (negative value), especially so since the shape and size of those dark elements is very similar to the shape and size of the letters, thus creating visual interference (negative value).
Typography may not be quantum mechanics, but it sure helps to have some basic notion of how mathematics and physics work. ;)
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