My Type of Music: The Rosebuds, Peter Murphy, Random Axe, Pat Metheny, The Dear Hunter
Before we start this episode of My Type of Music I would like to pay tribute to the man to whom our series of album cover reviews owes its very existence. Alex Steinweiss, who can rightfully be called the inventor of the album cover, passed away this summer, aged 94. Up until 1938 records came packaged in simple brown wrappers. At the centre a circle was cut out to reveal the label on the record which held all the information. Alex Steinweiss, who worked as a designer of posters and catalogues at Columbia Records, thought this could be improved. He proposed the management to create a package with a visual on the outside. The illustrated sleeves would appeal to the customers browsing records, and lure them into buying the records. Steinweiss’ simple idea revolutionized the record business and spawned an entire new field of commercial art – illustrated album covers – that has become inseparable from the product it promotes.
The very first album sleeve was designed by Steinweiss for Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart. Steinweiss would eventually design 2,500 album sleeves for different music labels, and remained an active designer until the early ’70s. His striking designs are still widely regarded as icons of the genre. Conceived as miniature posters, they sported eye-catching graphics, distinctive and vivd colours, and creative, original lettering and typography. As he was an accomplished illustrator, he incorporated original artwork into most of his pieces. The “Steinweiss style” went hand in hand with the golden age of jazz, classical, and popular music.
Alex Steinweiss created a trademark calligraphy style used on countless album covers, which was dubbed “Steinweiss Scrawl”. When Taschen Publishing asked Michael Doret to design the cover lettering for the book Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, Michael ultimately developed the lettering into the family of fonts Steinweiss Script. Its three weights, each in three variations – Simple, Fancy, and Titling – make this display face also suitable for longer passages of text. And Doret pays double homage to Steinweiss the designer, who’s not just the font’s namesake, but received a recipient of its proceeds.
Larceny & Old Lace, the second album produced by Ed Rawls for The Coathangers, the all-women rock band from Atlanta, features an intense photograph by Elisabeth Newman. In Elisabeth’s landscape work, she explores how Modern Southern identity is connected to the landscape, how people both define the landscape and at the same time are defined by it. In her nudes, she explores how light and form influence our perception of the human form.
The nude woman in the gritty cover photograph, on all fours, looking lazily, almost indifferently into the lens, seems to glow with light. Although the distressed typewriter face is a conceptually sound match, I would have preferred a little less obvious choice of typeface and composition. This daring album cover could have been even better with more tension between typography and image.
Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, is the subject of Are You Gonna Eat That?, the concept album for Hail Mary Mallon, Aesop Rock’s side project with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz. The cover art is a Photoshop illustration by Justin “Coro” Kaufman. The comic book style illustration is adequately complemented with traditional-looking speech balloon lettering.
Besides being a “searingly talented concept artist”, Justin is the co-founder of powerhouse San Francisco studio Massive Black, whose work for video games such as BioShock and Hellgate London is widely known. This highly regarded fine artist also is lead instructor at the infamous Safehouse Atelier, a two-year immersive arts program for illustrators and artists. Justin created the graphic novel Transient Man, a black comedy about a homeless man whose visions lead him to believe he is an inter-dimensional saviour of humanity, on a mission to save the universe.
The intensely fuchsia-and-gold photograph on Nothing Is Wrong, the second album for the Los Angeles folk-rock band Dawes, somehow makes me think of ’70s record sleeves. The transitional face Caslon for the band name and the modern serif Bauer Bodoni for the album title seem like an odd pairing, but it works.
The Rosebuds band mates Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp reunited to record Loud Planes Fly Low, an emotional album of failed love and a hopeful future. The cover art is a painting by Shaun Richards. In his biography the artist reveals that the landscapes, history, idiosyncrasies, and contradictions of his native southeastern United States have shaped him as well as the interests, themes, and content of his work. Of late he has been drawn to using cultural signifiers to insinuate this interest in regionalism and its subculture. With much of this recent work Shaun intentionally degraded the surfaces and images to create a sense of fleeting sentimentality, in the same way our experience of memories can become skewed or fictitious over time. I like how this particular artwork was painted over the yellowed pages of a book. The partially visible typography provides an intriguing background and texture for the image.
The birds in the painting are part of a flock of birds, also found on the CD face, that has been haunting Rosebuds’ records since Birds Make Good Neighbors. That album features cover elements also by Shaun, as was also the case with Life Like.
The typography is tastefully composed and well-positioned. The band name is a combination of italic Linotype Didot and Interstate. This makes the choice of Gotham for the album title a little odd, because on cursory glance both sans serifs are quite similar.
Recorded over five days with producer Ed Rose, Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me is the second album for the Los Angeles post-hardcore band Touché Amoré; its first on the Deathwish label. Unfortunately I couldn’t find who created the gorgeous cover art – a mirrored mountain landscape in greenish black and white, overpainted with transparent red and and white. Adding an ample, very light grey border around the image lends it a fine art atmosphere.
The typography is minimalist to the extreme. The band name in the top left corner and the album title at the bottom right are reduced to their initials in small white grotesque caps, with the initials of the album title arranged around a starburst of simple white lines.
Commenter Silas Vidar helped me get in touch with Touché Amoré guitarist Nick Steinhardt who is responsible for the beautiful artwork. He gave music webzine Review Rinse Repeat a look into the thought process behind his creation of the artwork for both the standard and deluxe editions of the new record in this edition of Artist Insight. Also, some tumblr posts on Eskimoswim document the deluxe book version of the LP, offering a wider look at the art: a 12.5″ hardbound book with the LP in the back pocket.
The artwork for England Keep My Bones, the fourth studio album for the British folk rock singer-songwriter Frank Turner, is made to look like the cover of a classic leather-bound book with gold-leaf typography. Copperplate Gothic – used both filled and in outline form – fits the concept. The bones from the album title make up a pirate-like composition with four initials set in a shaded, shadowed decorative face that references vintage circus posters and glass gilding.
Peter Murphy’s Ninth is the former Bauhaus leader’s first collection of new solo material in seven years. The mesmerizing photograph gracing its cover is by Polish photographer Thomas Bak, one of the very first “subversive” artists in photography. This creator of “Surrealistic Daguerreotypes, Occult Sujets & Atavistic Fetixisms” is lecturer of the “Photographic Master Class” at the IAA. He calls himself an “Aphoristic Draughtsman & Painter. Essayist, Magickal Musician & Filmmaker”. Bak’s works have been exhibited and highly awarded in countries around the globe.
The out-of-focus Art Deco sans serif is perfectly positioned in the symmetric shape created by Peter Murphy’s silhouette. The left and right bottom corners of the line of text touching the intersection points of torso and arms betray the designer’s attention to detail.
David Comes To Life by the Toronto seven-piece Fucked Upis a four-act narrative album, as theatrical as it is musical. A duplicated and rotated illustration of a light bulb cleverly creates a heart shape. All text is set in the wide bracketed slab serif Volta, a lovely vintage design from the 50s.
On It’s a Corporate World, another album of psychedelic indie pop by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., the Detroit duo of Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott mock the corporate world from the title by having their portrait painted as two business executives. The mat board cut at a 45° angle framing the painting gives it the appropriate swanky look.
If you think there’s something weird about the album title, it’s because Filosofia Italic has been de-slanted (except the capital A and W) to form an upright italic, much like FF Seria’s for example. The gothic used for the band name remains a mystery for now.
The album cover for Arabia Mountain by self-proclaimed “flower-punk” band Black Lips from Atlanta, Georgia and produced by Mark Ronson looks wilfully 80s (and not in a good way). The image shows a rather clueless-looking band in contrived poses, with the inclusion of two masked naked ladies and a skull worn as a hat. On a hat. This must have seemed like a killer idea when they thought it up in the middle of the night, completely drunk and/or stoned out of their minds. I am convinced the symbolism in this concept goes really really deep. However in broad daylight it looks plain daft.
People who have seen any of my presentations touching on type selection know by now I have a teensy problem with cultural stereotyping through typography. Using a faux Arabic typeface for an album called Arabia Mountain? Guys, puh-leez!
This however is how it’s done. Cults’ major-label debut with throwback pop songs shows the Brooklyn boy-girl duo joyously rocking out. The simplicity of the black-and-white shot of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion flipping their hair against a pristine white background, with the band name in simple Gotham caps, amounts to a great album cover.
Commenter Michael Sean points out:
The image of Brian and Madeline rocking out is an homage to Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities, a 1979 series of b&w portraits of business folks frozen in writhing positions. One of Longo’s original images was even used by the group for their self-released 7-inch.
The group Maxïmo Park previously were inspired by Longo, too. The cover of their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, as well as the artwork for all the singles from that period, feature photos of business people in similarly strained positions.
Also rather fun is the sleeve for the debut full-length album for The Postelles – the band formed while the members were still in high school in Manhattan – produced by Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes. It has the four band members, clearly not taking themselves very seriously, lying together in bed all dressed.
Unfortunately the execution leaves to be desired. The sports-like script is poorly rendered, and its size and position looks pretty random. And why was that ghastly black gradient added all along the border?
There Is a Way, the second album for the Scottish rock band Dananananaykroyd is another album where I would have loved to find out who did the cover. The bizarre technical drawing in pale grey with distressed Futura caps overlaid in transparent bright orange becomes even more intriguing once you notice it resembles an eye, staring at you menacingly.
Thanks to Silas Vidar’s excellent leads I also got in contact with Erik A. Hamline of Woods & Weather and screenprinting and design studio the Steady Print Shop Co. This 23 year old designer and printer in Minneapolis, Minnesota designed and silkscreened the artwork for Dananananaykroyd’s new album.
We’d worked with a couple concepts that were more like some of the posters I’d done recently – scanner warp, psychedelic textures, etc. Eventually we decided that something a little more bold with a sort of throwback science textbook vibe would be more in line with the message of the album, especially the title “There is a way”. Then I expanded it from there, adding a layer of creepiness with the eyes and pattern work. Mysteries and such…
The artwork for self-titled debut album by Random Axe – the group that includes producer Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, and Sean Price – was designed by Upendo Taylor, a graphic designer-slash-painter with roots in street art and skate culture. Using hand drawn skills along with current computer design applications, Upendo has developed an original design aesthetic. Pulling inspiration from his lifestyle, street culture, fashion, music and dialogue with close friends he continues to explore his endless passion for art and design. This is translated in an energetic album cover reminiscent of punk collage art, mixing worn-out, heavily rasterised photography, distressed typography, and brightly coloured details. Although the typefaces themselves are a bit pedestrian – Helvetica, Impact and Brush Script – the context in which they are used make them interesting again.
Through Low Light and Trees is the debut full-length album for British folk duo Smoke Fairies. The cover features a dream-like image of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, like two fairies caught in the headlights of a passing car. A distressed text serif beautifully complements the ethereal image.
It was photographed by Maria Mochnacz, a photographer and video maker trained in fine art and photography. Besides doing fashion & fine art work, she has been collaborating with musicians and bands since 1991. Her most well known work is with PJ Harvey – as well as producing her photographs and music videos Mochnacz has been closely involved in her styling over the course of her career. Maria Mochnacz uses 35mm cameras and funny plastic cameras that are a bit hit-and-miss, without any digital processing. Her photography is often described as “lo-fi but with a hard fine art edge”. As she explains on her website she loves to make the process of photographing people playful and collaborative.
From the moment I discovered the album cover for What’s It All About, the solo acoustic guitar album which sees Pat Metheny covering classic pop songs from 1960 to the 1970s, I had this nagging feeling I’d seen it before. And just as I was about to start writing this paragraph it dawned on me that it was very similar to Nitin Sawhney’s multi-awarded millennial epic Prophesy. Having the wide sans caps in Engravers Gothic interact with the rails is a nice touch, but the positioning is not as precise as I’d like it to be. Some extra care to the word spacing and the distance between words and rails would have garnered an even better result.
Music from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, U2’s Bono and the Edge soundtrack to the Broadway musical holds no interest for me whatsoever. I was just wondering if the designer/art director applied my Glowing Letters tutorial for the typography.
As far as weird album covers go, Suburbia – I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, another album by Philadelphia pop-punk band The Wonder Years released on Hopeless Records ranks pretty high. The narrow sans is the classic Alternate Gothic.
What a wonderful visualisation of a musical concept. The Color Spectrum is a nine-part concept album featuring nine EPs, each dedicated to a different colour, released by The Dear Hunter, the indie band from Providence, Rhode Island. Nine different images, each one with a prevalent colour matching one of the EPs, were cut in narrow vertical strips, and subsequently rearranged in alternating order to create a composite image. The end result manages the impressive feat to be at once beautiful, intriguing, and easy to understand as a concept.
We end this episode with a gorgeous album cover for It’s All True, the fourth release on Domino Records from the electronic music duo Junior Boys. Jeremy Greenspan began writing and conceiving It’s All True in China while visiting his sister. The cover of the album is a detail of Thomas Heatherwick’s U.K. Pavilion, taken at the World Expo that took place in Shanghai last year. The understated Art Deco capitals of Neutraface 2 nicely match the quiet repetitive geometry of the architecture.
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