My Type of Music: N.E.R.D., Elvis Costello, The Black Eyed Peas, Stereolab, Nicki Minaj
This is a double episode of My Type of Music, yet you can’t really tell by its size. December always is a slow month as far as new album releases are concerned. In the period running up to the holidays and related festivities the music business cashes in on past successes, compiling and re-releasing packages that fit perfectly under the Christmas tree. Those box sets, compilations and special editions are less interesting for this series. As the number of reviews of Metacritic Music – the place where I find my material to write about – drops to a fraction of its usual volume, instead of having a lean December episode I decided to combine two months in this instalment.
Well, we however do start with a compilation. I can’t help but be a little disappointed in An Introduction to Elliott Smith, the compilation containing tracks from Elliott Smith’s previous eight solo albums. There is nothing inherently wrong with the quiet black-and-white photograph of the late singer-songwriter, with all type set in Adobe Garamond. It’s just that his previous album covers were far more interesting – be it the beautiful blue collage for New Moon which I discussed on Unzipped almost four years ago, the swooping interpretation of Mod graphics – an existing mural painting in Los Angeles – in Autumn de Wilde’s picture on Figure 8, the multi-layered dream-like image on XO, and so on. Not only are these beautiful covers, but the lettering or type treatment on each one is artful and appropriate. People may argue that the subdued treatment on this new compilation is respectful; personally I think the artwork is selling the artist short.
From subdued and stylish to garish and tacky – there couldn’t be a more brutal contrast. The artwork for Merry Christmas II You – the second Christmas album for Mariah Carey including a rerecording of her 1994 Christmas song All I Want for Christmas is You – goes beyond ridicule. Honestly it is hard to believe the art director and/or designer of this train wreck could possibly have taken himself/herself seriously. In any case they must have thought they were clever when they noticed the initials of the R&B singer also spelled Merry Christmas, hence the monogram-like combination of the initial M and C. And the cherry on the cake is the Roman number II in the album title that doubles up for indicating it is her second Christmas album. I bet they had giggle fits galore in the art department at Island.
Befitting of the holiday theme the typeface used for the artwork is (quite unimaginatively, but I didn’t expect any different) a French script, akin to the aptly titled French Script, the more than centenary Linoscript by Morris Fuller Benton, or Matthew Carter’s 1970s design Gando (digitised by Bitstream as French 111).
Before we all start gagging let’s quickly get back to the good stuff, and this is truly good. Just like the covers for Matt & Kim’s first two albums, the artwork for Sidewalks, the new album infused with club beats, pop, and disco-punk, is simply fabulous. All three are original works of art by Kim Schifino, drummer/vocalist of the duo, and an alumnus of the Pratt Institute (this private art college located in Brooklyn, New York is where she and keyboardist/vocalist Matt Johnson came together in 2004). Raw and dynamic layered images of urban architecture – I reckon Brooklyn – are silk-screened in eye-popping colours. The three album sleeves form a perfect series with a shifting colour palette, creating some kind of subversive corporate identity for the bouncy punk pop duo.
The text on all three album sleeves is hand lettered, each in a different style. On the eponymous debut album the lettering looks like a freeform interpretation of Gareth Hague’s highly original design August (the Alternate variant). Grand features hand sketched sans caps, and the wonderful brush script on Sidewalks refers to commercial lettering and sign painting – marvel at the dashing and inventive Ki-ligature. Gosh I love this.
And in case you were wondering – yes, these are the same Matt & Kim of the sexy/disturbing promo for Lessons Learned, winner of the Breakthrough Video Award at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards.
Nothing, which sees Virginia trio N.E.R.D. adding psychedelic rock influences to their mad-scientist mix of hip-hop, combines a deliberately lo-fi photograph with a quite elaborate decorative element holding the type and assorted design elements. I don’t know if it is intentional, but the typography matches the music style of the album to a tee. The N.E.R.D. logo remains unchanged. Freeware font Battlefield, a forceful techno design which unfortunately is quite crudely drawn, represents the hip-hop aspect. Symbolising the psychedelic rock is Doobie, the type used for the album title. Stylistically Battlefield’s opposite, this psychedelic design by Canada Type is a typical hippy font that uses the simplest elements of the art nouveau genre.
I know there is no type on the album sleeve for Brian Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea, but the minimalistic design matches beautifully the more ambient musical approach he continues to take on this album. A mesmerising cover, thoughtful, and wonderfully balanced.
When combining typefaces, try to avoid designs that are very close yet not identical. This is what happened on the cover for Dreams, the new album on which legendary crooner Neil Diamond creates his own rendition of his favourites in this collection of covers by artists such as Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, and even his own classic tunes. Sackers Gothic, the wide sans used for the album title, is way too similar to the artist’s name which is set in H&FJ Gotham. The artwork itself is surprisingly un-showbizz-like for an artist like Neil Diamond, which is a good thing.
National Ransom, Elvis Costello’s second album with producer T-Bone Burnett is both reminiscent of his earlier work and experimental in sound, with a foray into finger-picking country and eclectic folk-rock tunes. Those lesser enlightened souls insisting that music and politics don’t mix obviously haven’t listened to Costello yet. Already in 1977 the artist just out of the cradle denounced rising neo-fascism with his first single Less Than Zero. Since those very early days political songs have remained a constant in Costello’s repertoire. With Shipbuilding about the Falklands crisis he may have written the best – if not, then the most subtle – song about war. Growing older he hasn’t lost any of his bite nor talent for observation. In the title song Costello criticises the banking crisis, while in One Bell Ringing he recounts the sad fate of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian young man who was shot by the police in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the London Underground on July 22, 2005.
The album cover features artwork by illustrator, author, and popular alternative weekly and Dark Horse comic book artist Tony Millionaire, known for his syndicated comic strip Maakies and the Sock Monkey series of comics and picture books. It illustrates the banking crisis described in the title song with biting wit – a wolf in top hat and tails flees the scene with a suitcase full of cash, leaving a trail of burning money behind it. The iconography of money is reinterpreted as border ornamentation, reinforcing the financial theme.
This is the second time that Elvis Costello has used an illustration by Tony Millionaire on an album sleeve. The first time was for Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, whose handsome ink drawing is pictured above.
I usually don’t care much for photo-realistic three-dimensional effects on type. It tends to look rather tawdry, unless it actually is three-dimensional like the stunning work of David A. Smith, contemporary sign writer and glass gilder. Nevertheless on Cardiology – on which pop-punk rockers Good Charlotte reveal more than their typical teen-angst-ridden side, with topics ranging from married life to ballads about fatherhood – it seems weirdly appropriate. Maybe it is because the artwork seems to refer to both tattoo art and painting/carving on wood or reverse glass signs.
The gritty treatment of the band name set in Old English is too much of a good thing, but the album title looks like it was delicately chiselled in Compendium and gilded. Fair enough, they had to add shadow effects to increase its legibility, but I still like it in a “guilty pleasure” sort of way.
No type on Strychnine Dandelions, the debut album by The Parting Gifts featuring Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright and The Ettes’ Coco Hames, but hand lettering. Using a technique popular on psychedelic rock posters in the seventies, hand drawn letter forms fill up the space around the hand and the dandelion as completely as possible. The lettering however lacks the refinement and inventiveness of its ancestors.
This is normally not exactly my thing, but what a delightful artwork Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn has; the tribute album featuring a plethora of stars singing many of her hits. It starts with the exuberant, kitschy pink dress the country legend is wearing in the otherwise black-and-white photograph. Its aesthetic and its mood, and the very intention of the overall image are masterfully mirrored in the intricate typographic piece adorning the top of the sleeve.
The album title is set in a weathered ornate Wild West wood type face, very similar to Zebrawood. Below the chunky Ziggurat (from H&FJ’s Proteus Project; see also David Berlow’s excellent Giza family), Trooper Black was nicely customised. The type surrounded by curly wood type ornaments, just this short of overdone.
And another pinkish cover, this one for The Lady Killer, the third solo album in which Cee-Lo Green brings back his blend of Motown and neo-soul to pop music – check his fabulous pink suit and his sizzling hot all-girl backing band The Perfect Imperfections on Later with Jools Holland. That man simply oozes confidence and showmanship from every single pore of his compact body. And while you’re busy wasting time, maybe also take a look at Gnarls Barkley’s epic live performance of their breakout hit Crazy at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards. Pop culture doesn’t get any better than this.
But now, back to the business at hand. The terrific photograph – great framing, beautiful colours and texture – is overlaid with a typical sign painter’s brush script, infusing the sleeve with a 1950s mood. It reminds me of the work of Charles Borges de Oliveira and Sudtipos, specifically the gorgeous Bluemlein Collection. Via Typophile buddy Rainer Zerenko I learned that the typeface is Lasalle, from the Filmotype Collection. This amazing photo film alphabet collection was acquired in 2006 by Font Diner – just added to the FontShop roster – who are in the process of digitising and releasing these wonderful gems of 1950s lettering as digital fonts. LaSalle was among the very first handwritten script fonts offered by Filmotype. Designed by Ray Baker, a former Lettering Inc. employee at the time, it was named after LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago. Other digitisations (by Elsner + Flake and Scangraphic) fail to reference the Filmotype provenance.
The artwork for For the Ghosts Within, another solo effort showcasing distinguished British musician Robert Wyatt’s ability to re-imagine classic jazz standards as well as revitalize a few from his own catalogue, is a papier découpé-style collage. Now I am certainly not advocating that every single collage should come with hand cut lettering, but all-lowercase Univers Next Extended seems like a rather haughty and pedestrian type treatment to me. The blue stencil a in the red hat is Braggadocio.
What I like about the Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, the latest EP from folk musician Kristian Matsson a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth that was recorded on tour, is not so much the photograph – which is very nice, mind you. It is how expertly and appropriately the type was integrated in said photograph. Artist name and album title, set in Else NPL as a narrow text block, are positioned in a semi-circular white area created by the sun overexposing the upper half of the open window. An inventive and satisfying solution.
Simple but effective is what I would call the album sleeve for All Day, latest album of mash-up tracks by Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) released as a free download. The album title in simple white sans caps reversed out of blue, projected against a skeleton pinned against the wall. Very direct, with a hint of wit; what more do you need?
The artwork for A Christmas Cornucopia, the Christmas album from Scottish singer Annie Lennox featuring a 30-piece orchestra and the African Children’s Choir, immediately reminded me of the cover for Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy in our September episode. Whereas the digitally altered typography was highly inappropriate in the latter, here the Victorian-style letter shapes perfectly fit the period style and mood of the illustration. That same mood and atmosphere can be found in P22’s very similar P22 Victorian Swash, as well as in some of Richard Beatty’s designs.
The tinted black-and-white picture with chalk lettering on the cover …Featuring Norah Jones, the compilation album of duets by Norah Jones, is actually quite nice. Similar approach to The Parting Gifts’ Strychnine Dandelions a couple of entries earlier, but somehow this one looks better.
The album sleeve for Born Free, Kid Rock’s latest album is influenced by country-rock and blues and takes a break from his usual rap and metal musical hybrid style, is as easily laughable as Mariah Carey’s at the beginning of this instalment. What I regret most about this image is its (apparent) total lack of humour. Handled differently I am sure it could have been great fun. And the typography? Mock gold embossed Trajan, with Bickham Script underneath? Try harder, you silly bastich. The artwork irrevocably brings Randy Newman’s biting satire to mind.
To avoid any misunderstandings – I do not claim to know what Kid Rock’s opinion on political and racial issues is, but with a picture like that you’re sending out the wrong message, at least to my sensitive European eyes.
An artist very concerned about his image – but hey, aren’t we all? – Nelly does a balancing act on his sixth album, titled 5.0 in acknowledgement of his love of the Ford Mustang, and featuring collaborations with the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, Akon, and several others. In an attempt to recapture the badassness of the sweaty, tattooed muscular torso on Brass Knuckles, he offsets his pristine white T-shirt against the street quality of spray painted square stencil caps.
As a collection of recordings from 1978, The Promise has been heralded as the great lost Springsteen album, comprising previously unreleased B-sides from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. Historically accurate, the type is genuinely typewritten, reflecting a typographic device often used in the seventies. Nowadays several distressed typewriter faces successfully emulate this specific look, the best amongst them being the mind-blowing FF Trixie HD. Personally my favourite, the squarish sans FF Magda comes with a special feature – its weight increases from the inside out, which creates interesting possibilities when overlaying different weights.
Another design which seems to come from times past is Not Music, a collection of the trademark synth-laden instrumentation and experimental dream-pop over delicate female vocals by British post-rock band Stereolab. The entirely typographic artwork sports an extreme bold display face typical of the seventies, somewhat similar to FF Zan or Koloss. To enhance the vintage feel, the entire image was suitably weathered.
And the cover for Earth vs. the Pipettes, the second album for the British indie pop band The Pipettes, looks very ’80s with its airbrushed sci-fi imagery. It’s a shame the type is a mismatch – H&FJ Gotham doesn’t look retro, and the bold hand lettered script reminiscent of Whomp is not sci-fi. If I had to work with this image I’d definitely have gone for something like ITC Avant Garde Gothic or ITC Serif Gothic, or better yet a compu-retro face, and Rian Hughes’ delectable Electrasonic for the band name.
I am shocked to admit I like the album cover for Progress, the sixth album which sees British boys band Take That welcome Robbie Williams back to the group – never imagined I would one day use the word “like” in the same sentence as “British boys band”. The airbrushed red and black silhouettes against the bright yellow background make for a powerful image that is sure to grab the eye of the casual browser in the (virtual) music store. The same remark as for Neil Diamond’s album cover applies here – try to avoid combining typefaces that are very close yet not identical. The album title is set in H&FJ Gotham, while the band name certainly isn’t (notice how cleverly I evaded having to identify that one ;-).
To be honest I don’t care much for the illustration on Pilot Talk II by New Orleans rapper Curren$y featuring guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Devin the Dude, Jay Electronica, Mikey Rocks, Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA, Trademark Da Skydiver, and Young Roddy. It looks like a felt tip pen drawing by a teenager, with a half-hearted rendition of Candice.
The humour which is conspicuously absent in the cover of Kid Rock’s album is thankfully front and centre on Pink Friday, the debut of electro-infused, bold, and hook-heavy hip-hop by rapper Nicki Minaj. To the casual viewer the photograph may seem like a candidate for Photoshop Disasters. Yet if I interpret it correctly the pink caricature with impossibly long legs and Barbie-like features is a critical commentary on the Photoshopped-beyond-perfection stars of today.
It is safe to say we can categorise the artwork on Absolute Dissent, from the UK masters of doom-and-gloom metal Killing Joke – their first album in 28 years featuring the band’s original line-up – as social commentary as well. The Christian cross outfitted with antennas, akin a radio mast, seems to criticise both contemporary institutionalised religion, and our almost religious reliance on continuous connectivity. The minimalistic all-lowercase Futura is very well positioned in the image.
Bare Bones, the stripped-down album with acoustic versions of the biggest hits of Bryan Adams, comes with an equally stripped-down album sleeve. The grainy blueish portrait of the Grammy Award-winning rocker reveals the rough texture of his face. I really appreciate no obvious attempt was made to conceal Adams’ age, but to let his features speak for themselves. Accordingly the type is set in the distressed serif face JSL Ancient (thanks Rainer).
I initially thought I recognised the TDC2 Certificate of Excellence in Type Design-winning Narziss Swirls on the cover for Love Me Back, the second solo album of Philadelphia-born R&B singer/songwriter Jazmine Sullivan, who has written songs for such artists as Christina Milian, Monica, and Jennifer Hudson. However the swirly extensions are decidedly different. The swashy modern face turns out to be Bodoni Classic Swing, one of the many Bodoni Classic variants by Gert Wiescher.
Northern Aggression, an intriguingly seductive blend of Americana rock, psychedelia, brutal punk and extended jams by L.A.’s veteran indie rocker Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, wears an intriguing op art-like pattern on its sleeve. A pattern of wavy blue stripes is overlaid on big Gotham capitals outlined in red. In combination with the yellow line with artist name and album title (also set in Gotham) this creates a shimmering effect.
The compact sans serif on the cover for The DeAndre Way – Soulja Boy’s third album filled with catchy hooks and speaker-busting beats, titled after his birth-given name – looks like a slimmed down interpretation of Futura Display, redrawn with the omission of its sharp tiny serifs.
It’s quite funny how recognisable the colourful, coarse bitmap portraits of the members of hip-hop, dance-pop quartet The Black Eyed Peas are on the sleeve for The Beginning, the album following – figures – The E.N.D. Adding the three-dimensional effect steers the image away from the all too obvious 8-bit aesthetic. The concept does remind me of The Best Of Blur though.
The typography resembles Battlefield, used on N.E.R.D.’s Nothing discussed earlier, but better drawn. The almost logo-like science-fiction movie treatment with connectors and extenders is well executed.
On the cover for We Can’t Fly, the first and final album for the DJ/producing duo of Vita Deluca and Stephen Fasano under the moniker Aeroplane, an aeroplane window reveals an idyllic picture of a sun-washed shore. I don’t know whether the dotted sans caps are an existing typeface, or custom designed.
Last Train to Paris is Diddy’s attempt at fashioning an alter ego and creating a conceptual album, featuring collaborations with Felix da Housecat, The Neptunes, The-Dream, Grace Jones, and Lil Wayne. It also introduces the world to Diddy’s R&B/Hip-Hop collective, Dirty Money, a group consisting of Dawn Richard (formerly of Danity Kane) and singer-songwriter Kalenna Harper.
The album cover is a photograph at Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, France) taken by Australian photographer Jarrod “Jrod” Kimber. Diddy has worked with some of the most renowned directors and photographers including Hype Williams, David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, but instead of asking them to shoot his latest album cover, the music mogul found a photographer on the Internet. American nationwide hip-hop and R&B magazine for Gen Y Rap Up unveils the story behind the picture.
Australian blogger and amateur shutterbug Jarrod “Jrod” Kimber revealed that he was contacted by Interscope Records for one of his personal photos that he snapped at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris during a 2008 vacation. After repeated attempts to reach him, they finally connected and the label purchased the photo from him. But imagine his surprise when he saw that it had become the cover for Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris.
“Obviously I am not a professional snapper or anything,” he explained. “This was taken on a holiday while waiting for my wife (who can be seen under the G) on a small camera. The only artistic part of it was me seeing the cool red right and going up and down the escalator a few times to get the right shot.”
He read some of the ridicule from fans, who were not so keen on the artistic imagery. “I can see why some of his fans might see it as whack,” he wrote in response to the nasty comments. “It isn’t really a cover aimed at the majority of people who buy Diddy records.”
While he admits to not being a fan of the Bad Boy before, the experience may have changed all that. “I’m not going to pretend to be the world’s biggest Diddy fan, I’m more a Jay-Z or Kanye sort of chap, but I always liked his producing of Biggie’s work,” shared Kimber. “Now I’m a bigger fan, I shall talk about his career by saying Post Jrod or pre Jrod when discussing it with people.”
I really like the artwork on Farmer’s Daughter, the major-label debut from American Idol star Crystal Bowersox faithful to her style on the show – folk-tinged, reflective rock reminiscent of the early-’60s era; particularly the typography. The straight-sided narrow modern serif Ginebra Bolds by Sohokid – reminiscent of CA Play by grunge masters Cape-Arcona – has just the right amount of ornamentation and playfulness. It’s a solid solution for the relaxed image in earthy, slightly faded tones. The translucent vintage decorations framing the image add a nice touch of sophistication.
Love Letter sees R&B hit maker R. Kelly tone down his controversial image and taking his sound back to Motown, releasing classic love songs inspired by ’50s and ’60s slow jams. Fittingly the photograph in gorgeous golden tones channels the spirit of Ray Charles.
The typography nicely matches the period look. Just like on Cee-Lo Green’s album earlier on, the retro script Leisure Script is from Font Diner, newly added on FontShop. The artist’s name is an interpretation of the popular wide wood type slab serif Hellenic Wide, while “Stereo” in the red band is set in Clarendon.
Jamie Foxx indeed looks primed for a party on Best Night of My Life, the fourth album from the stand-up comedian, actor, and singer featuring club bangers and his recognizable brand of R&B, which guest stars Justin Timberlake, Ludacris, Soulja Boy, and others. The sci-fi square sans perfectly matches the sleek techno atmosphere emanating from the cover image. Its provenance seems rather dubious – the name Bitsumishi (thanks, Ryuk) is a thinly veiled admission that the design was copied from the Mitsubishi car brand, a fact that is not mentioned anywhere in the typeface’s documentation. Well, the foundry name CheapProFonts leaves little to the imagination.
Calling All Hearts, Keyshia Cole’s latest release – featuring acclaimed producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, along with guest singers and rappers – offers a mix of down-tempo R&B melodies and upbeat tracks. The typography on its cover is a cop-out – thin and even more anemic Neue Helvetica. The designer went for a sophisticated look by slightly overlapping the last letter of the first name, and the first letter of the last name of the artist. Adding a heart in the “o” both refers to the album title and mirrors the artist’s make-up. It all looks very self-evident and very safe.
It is remarkable how far removed the sleeve for Duran Duran’s All You Need Is Now – an album blending glam with disco and modern pop, and melding the various genres together into a catchy collaboration – is from the slick designs on the albums of their heydays in the ’80s. Here grainy, misprocessed pictures are mutilated, and overwritten with quickly scrawled handwriting. The band name is atypically set in the Wild West-inspired Tuscan PL Davison Americana (the abbreviation PL stands for Photo Lettering Inc.).
It’s a shame to have to conclude this episode on a low note, but I can’t shake the impression I have already seen the album cover for No Boys Allowed, the album containing both club hits and seductive ballads by R&B songstress Keri Hilson featuring such guests as Rick Ross and Chris Brown. I doubt it was copied from an already existing design, yet this feels so familiar. The rough brush script caps were custom lettered; the wide grotesque on the yellow tape is Neue Helvetica 93 Extended Black.
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