My Type of Music: Grace Jones, Primus, The Kooks, Ladytron, Steve Reich
It’s been a while since we had an episode of My Type of Music. Let’s dive into a fresh stack of albums and pore over their covers.
The boundary-crossing German record label ECM (short for Edition of Contemporary Music) is well-known for its album covers. They have been the subject of two publications thus far, Sleeves of Desire: A Cover Story and Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM, both published by Lars Müller. The cover for Re: ECM,
techno artist Ricardo Villalobos and experimental artist Max Loderbauer teaming up to produce music inspired by ECM’s catalogue, adheres the label’s graphic identity. Simple Modernist typography is set flush left on a hazy monochrome green photograph of the surf crashing on the beach – here Adrian Frutiger’s seminal optical character recognition face OCR-B. Call me old-fashioned, but I really like these ECM album covers – minimalism at its best.
Even more artistic is the sleeve for Garden of Arms, the second release for Peter Pisano and Brian Moen as Peter Wolf Crier which was written after their 2010 tour. The term “cover art” can be taken quite literally – the artwork is Displayed in Order, an original sketch in acrylic and emulsion on paper for a larger painting by Michael Cina. This internationally recognized creative director is currently leading the multi-disciplinary design studio Cina Associates. In the type world Cina is known as the originator of YouWorkForThem, a graphic design boutique which also publishes his typefaces; and its sister company, WeWorkForThem, an award-winning design studio.
For this album cover the classic serif face Stempel Schneidler seems to be applied as white rub-on lettering. The slightly broken up and distressed character shapes harmonise well with the textural, visceral paint strokes that create an almost tactile relief. In a way I am a little disappointed that the sleeve doesn’t use one of Cina’s typefaces. This would have made for a holistic approach to design, and would have revealed inhowfar his interest is traditional art and how to build upon its foundations in new ways applies to his art and type design combined.
I regret not having found who did the collage for Celestial Electric, the debut by Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter AM and London-based Shawn Lee. It subtly references the 1960s and 70s rock music that influenced the creation of this album. The fragmented geometric character parts of the stencil display face Braggadocio match the overall style of the collage. Even the shadow effect doesn’t bother me, as it relates to the assembling and layering of photographic elements.
A whole different type of collage art graces the cover for Minnesota, the latest album for Mason Jennings. Jennings describes the record as a “collage of love trying to survive the transition into being a grown-up in a complex world”. The portrait of the Hawaii-born singer-songwriter constructed with colourful photographs looks great.
In this video Jennings explains how the album art was created and how it reflects the “Minnesota” recording process.
With Hurricane Dub, Grace Jones re-releases her 2008 album Hurricane including a second disc of dub versions. An icon of our time, the Jamaican-American singer, model, and actress once again teamed up with her once creative partner, French stylist Jean-Paul Goude, to deliver a striking cover image. It shows Jones looking suitably terrifying in a trademark Philip Treacy hat. The austere, rigid letter forms of the rounded tech sans Storno reflect her severe, androgynous look which was originally created in partnership with Goude. Jones’ impressive appearance helped her rise to fame in the 1970s and 1980s, and still plays an important role throughout her artistic output, whether it be music videos, concert performances, album covers and portraits.
The same typeface was used for the original Hurricane, her tenth studio album and first album of new material in nineteen years. The album cover features chocolate heads of herself, moulded by life-casting experts John and Tristan Schoonraad and artist Nick Reynolds of Alabama 3. The moulds were subsequently filled at the Thorntons chocolate factory, where the artwork was shot.
From one Jones to the other – The Wanting, the fourth solo acoustic album by guitarist Glenn Jones was recorded in his apartment. The text on the naive, vintage illustration of a cat playing guitar is set in the extra bold didone – a typographic style commonly called “fat face” – Poster Bodoni Italic. I love how the ball terminal cuts into the tail of the ‘J’.
The cover for Green Naugahyde really is a missed opportunity. Let’s analyse the design possibilities for Primus’ first full-length release since 1999’s Antipop, which also heralds the return of drummer Jay Lane. We have a photograph of a vintage metal toy, a blank stare in its eerie, lifeless eyes, set against this amazing bright green background. And what does the art director/designer do? Safely tuck away all the text in the lower left corner? Set stacked in friggin’ Futura!? Consider the myriad ways the type could have interacted with the shape and texture of the toy, with the background, and all the different flavours the choice of typeface could have lent to this album cover. Get off your lazy arse, you hack!
The album art for The Sea of Memories, the fifth studio album by English post-grunge group Bush, is a dream for lovers of graffiti and lettering art. Set against a painted intense blue background and the band name in customised H&FJ Gotham Ultra, it features intricate and intriguing lettering by Marquis Retna Lewis. This street artist of African-American, El Salvadorian and Cherokee descent grew up in Los Angeles. Mesmerised by the gang graffiti that surrounded him he began making murals on walls, trains and freeway overpasses throughout the city in the mid-nineties. Retna developed an original signature alphabet, influenced by ancient Inca and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic, Hebrew, Asian calligraphy, and graffiti. The resulting lettering style looks like an undiscovered ancient script, with just enough clues in the individual letters to be deciphered.
I think one has to see the sleeve for Mountaintops – the sixth album by Mates of State channeling the joys of domesticity, parenthood and conjugal intimacy with an infectious giddiness – to truly appreciate it. From the looks of the images I found online I think it has a plain white outside sleeve, perforated with a pattern of round holes and an unassuming, thoughtfully set line of H&FJ’s slab serif Sentinel. Peeking through the perforations seems to be a colourful, heavily rasterised inner sleeve.
The English indie rock band The Kooks return after a three-year hiatus with a new album. The girl in the overpainted photograph gracing the cover for Junk of the Heart is guitarist / vocalist Luke Pritchard’s girlfriend Suki Alice. The bold character shapes of Eagle, reversed in white out of the image, look deliciously chunky.
For the album artwork for their fifth full-length album Gravity the Seducer, Ladytron enlisted pulp art director and photographer Neil Krug (Ratatat, Sea Wolf, Devendra Banhart). Krug’s photographic montages bathe in a vintage, psychedelic feel. The Salvador Dalí-esque image is consistent with the abstract, mysterious, omniscient atmosphere of the UK synth-pop veterans’ music.
Although I do appreciate the seventies vintage look – a continuation of the psychedelic covers for the singles extracted from this album – I object to the presence of spaced out Helvetica caps. Strictly speaking it is stylistically and historically correct, yet designer Trevor Tarczynski only looks backwards with this typographic treatment. By throwing the design back a couple of decades he fails to acknowledge that this is a recent album, and adds nothing substantial to the design discourse. Judiciously selecting a contemporary typeface would have been a much more worthwhile endeavour, an investigation in how these very defined historic design styles can be interpreted and re-imagined, in order to keep their relevance in the current design landscape. Now it just feels lazy; pedestrian typography added to wildly imaginative images.
Completely opposite is the packaging designed by Bedow for An Argument with Myself, an EP of guitar-based pop with heavy use of samples and strings by Swedish musician Jens Lekman. With no image save a tiny engraved palm tree, the focus is squarely on the type. The expressive, angular text serif is Okapi (721k PDF), originally designed by Gro Janarv as a partial requirement for the fulfilment of the MA in Typeface Design at the University of Reading.
Just like the animal it is named after, Okapi is a strange breed referencing a variation of categories. The type family explores the boundaries between text and display as well as what we categorise as a regular, italic and bold version. Its angularity and fractured shapes were initially inspired by the stylistic features of the expressionist letter forms of Rudolf Koch, Vojtech Preissig and Oldrich Menhardt (see also JAF Lapture), all active in the early part of the 20th century, but also by the type designs of Zuzana Licko (for example Citizen and Journal).
This is the second time Perniclas Bedow used Okapi – the first time was for a new book project for the Swedish artist Daniel Jensen. Since it’s not yet commercialised Janarv had to send him beta versions. Janarv thinks the use of the italic in a larger point size on the cover makes it an aesthetically attractive piece. The Italic has the most of the mix of tension in between the cuts and the curves in the design, turning the idiosyncratic text face into a surprising display face.
A beautiful explosion graces the cover for Dreams Come True by CANT, the solo side project by Chris Taylor of Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear. The understated wide grotesque caps prove that it is possible to whisper forcefully in typography.
A far more tragic explosion was originally featured on Steve Reich: WTC 9/11. The album includes Steve Reich’s composition about the September 11 attacks, written for the Kronos Quartet, the Mallet Quartet performed by So Percussion, and Dance Patterns with Steve Reich and Musicians. The use of the image of the twin towers of the World Trade Center during the attacks was widely criticised, also because Reich’s piece focuses on the aftermath, not the attacks themselves. Caving in under the negative backlash Nonesuch finally pulled the controversial cover, and issued a statement from Reich saying he did not want the cover to distract listeners from the music.
In both versions the typeface is H&FJ Gotham. The setting in the original one is quite poor – the reversed out type was squooshed and sported a heavy black outline. In the new one the characters were restored to their original shapes.
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