Type Essays

My Type of Music

June 12, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our irregularly published review of album sleeve design and typography looks at the artwork for recent releases by Boz Scaggs, The Mountain Goats, The Wombats, Zac Brown Band, Raekwon, Squarepusher, The Leisure Society, and others.

© 2015 429 Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Making A Scene.
© 2015 429 Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Making A Scene.

A Fool to Care is the follow-up to Boz Scaggs’ acclaimed Memphis album from two years ago. This second collection of cover songs was recorded over four days with producer Steve Gordan and features guest appearances Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. I often argue that an album sleeve without any text is a cop-out; it’s just a piece of art, not a cover. Adding letters and words to artwork can be really tricky, as you need to find the right location and achieve the perfect balance to create a dialogue between words and image.

This cover shows it doesn’t always need to be a spectacular typographic arrangement. Sometimes a simple solution works fine: finding the sweet spot in that daunting square is all it takes to turn an photograph or illustration into a solid design. Here a straightforward centered line of the extended grotesque sans serif typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk® Extended, all in capitals, is judiciously positioned in the photograph. The letters change from white to blue when they cross into the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s silhouette – a familiar technique since the sixties – eliminating the need for punctuation or added space between album title and artist name. For an alternative that is considerably warmer and a bit more idiosyncratic than Akzidenz-Grotesk, try Standard Extended CT which also has the wide extended styles.

© 2015 Sargent House – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Sargent House – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

The album cover for Salome, the debut full-length release for the Los Angeles-based post-rock trio Marriages, is another example of thoughtful interaction between text and image – a slightly disconcerting photograph of a half-naked woman with four arms, sitting in long grass. Even though there is a whole area of prime real estate at the top, the designer chose to not fill it up with big letters but keep the type relatively small. Its position is very well considered. The album title seems to be levitating above the outstretched arms, as if the two hands are keeping it up by sheer force of will. The line made by the arms and the position of the hands dictate where the second word should start, with the distance between the two hands determining the space between top hand and baseline, while the wrists of the lower set of arms create an imaginary line extending to the end of the band name. Again a change in colour separates band name from album title, set in a skyline sans serif, a wobbly version of what looks like the Univers® 39 UltraCondensed Thin font.

© 2015 Merge Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Merge Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

Of course there are some cases where it is nigh impossible to successfully integrate the typography due to the nature of the artwork. Beat The Champ, the professional wrestling-themed concept album by John Darnielle’s indie folk rock band The Mountain Goats, features a fun, highly detailed illustration full of energy by Leela Corman. The typography by Rob Carmichael of Seen Studios is inspired by vintage wrestling posters – the choice of typeface as well as the position at the top. Instead of slavishly using a period typeface, he selected the calligraphic sans-serif typeface Lydia. This contemporary bold, condensed iteration of Warren Chappell’s Lydian™ typeface, released in 1938 by American Type Founders (ATF) and successively updated and expanded in 1940 & 1946, references both the hand-lettering and the wood display type commonly found on those posters. There is also a little bit of Ronne Bonder & Tom Carnase’s ITC Honda in there.

© 2015 Fat Cat Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Fat Cat Records.
© 2015 Fat Cat Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Fat Cat Records.

This is another example where the type works best separated from the artwork, in a blank bar at the top of the canvas. After breaking onto the international stage with their 2013 release Kaani, West African combo Tal National follow up with the dazzlingly sophisticated Zoy Zoy. Their artwork also improved – while the cover for Kaani looked a little amateurish, this one is really nice. The dazzling geometric pattern that takes up most of the sleeve is fascinating. It is an intriguing crossbreed of futuristic Art Deco meets high-tech African folk art meets tribal pixel art, arranged in a late 60s, early 70s lay-out. The latter influence is emphasised by the extreme extra bold display face similar to Black Boton, and the catalogue number and record label logo in the top corners.

© 2015 Atlantic – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Atlantic – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

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At first I thought the artwork for Kintsugi, the eighth full-length release for Ben Gibbard’s alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie, was one of these tasteful semi-abstract sepia photographs of architecture. It is only after I checked the high-resolution version that I realised the gorgeous art by Joe Rudko is an analogue distortion of a fragmented photograph – the digital-looking connections between the horizontal strips are actually hand-drawn with a photographic spotting pen. On the Hum website the Western Washington University alumnus explains how he adapted the art of Kintsugi – named after the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum – by manipulating old photographs from an estate sale in Bellingham, the hometown of Death Cab for Cutie.

Joe Rudko | “I selected the image because it was one that I had collected in Bellingham, where Death Cab for Cutie was formed, and where I lived for about 5 years. The image seemed to be taken at Larrabee State Park, a place I frequented while living there. I was initially drawn to the contrasting expressions on the girls’ faces. It seemed like a difficult photograph to define, despite what I may have already known about it.”

Read the post on Hum to discover the process in more detail. The type is Engravers™ Gothic.

© 2015 Cooking Vinyl Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Cooking Vinyl Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

The beautiful origami-like collage on the cover for Bonxie by British folk-pop band Stornoway on the other hand looks digital. The stylised bird could represent the Great Skua – the band is named after the Shetland nickname for the impressive but fearsome sea bird of northern climes. The textured, cream-hued background provides a nice contrast with the sharp triangular shapes in saturated colours. The typeface Intro has the same vibe as a number of other popular urban alphabet-inspired typefaces. I wish the designer had taken the time to correct the kerning in the ‘WAY’ sequence: the ‘A’ looks shifted to the left, with not enough room between ‘W’ and ‘A’, and an unsightly gap between ‘A’ and ‘Y’. The position of the type is not very imaginative.

© 2015 Tapete Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Tapete Records.
© 2015 Tapete Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Tapete Records.

No Sad Songs, the first release of all new material in eight years for The Lilac Time, the British indie folk band led by Stephen Duffy, also has a textured background but does away with literally everything else but the text. It is a bit weird, after seeing so many fake vintage designs being given away by contemporary typefaces, to discover this contemporary design with authentic vintage type. The Victorian decorative typeface Ringlet was designed by Herman Ihlenburg, and released by MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan in 1882. A digital revival was designed by Solotype for Dover Publications in 1998. Other fonts incorporating spiral motifs are Richard Beatty’s Spiral and Linotype’s Kismet™ typefaces, both based on John F. Cumming’s 1879 original, and P22 Kilkenny, designed by Paul Hunt after Herman Ihlenburg.

© 2015 Secretly Canadian – Click the image to see the album cover on Secretly Canadian.
© 2015 Secretly Canadian – Click the image to see the album cover on Secretly Canadian.

I was confused by the stylish album sleeve for the self-titled debut release by the collaboration between Canadian indie electronic quartet Suuns and Montreal-based Lebanese producer and musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (a.k.a. Jerusalem In My Heart). I immediately deciphered the ornamental rendition of the Suuns band name in the vertical part of Joe Yarmush’s typographic artwork. The horizontal line however looked like authentic Kufi to me. Because my Arabic contact told me it was too stylised to be readable, I reached out to Radwan Ghazi Moumneh himself. He explained that despite the appearances it is not actual Kufi, but stylised Latin lettering mimicking the Kufic shapes. The horizontal line spells “j i m h” with the ‘m’ in the middle, short for “Jerusalem In My Heart”. Personally I am not a fan of cultural appropriation and faux arabic, but keeping in mind Moumneh is an actual Lebanese expat this treatment is perfectly acceptable.

© 2015 – Click the image to see the album cover on Louder Than War.
© 2015 – Click the image to see the album cover on Louder Than War.

Equally pared-down is the artwork for Infinity Machines, the latest release for the Salford-based krautrock band Gnod. A big Rorschach inkblot and the lovingly distorted Alternate Gothic font (or is it the Trade Gothic® Bold font?) in the upper left corner, on lovely textured grey cardboard. Simply black ink on honest materials; no need for any Photoshop wizardry to create a classy album cover…

© Bright Antenna – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© Bright Antenna – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

… although said Photoshop wizardry can occasionally produce breathtaking results. Glitterbug by British indie rock band The Wombats was inspired by trips to Los Angeles. The city takes up a prominent role in the photographic artwork by Darren Oorloff and Samuel Burgess, an enchanting nocturnal cityscape exquisitely merged into the silhouette of a woman, with some added bokeh effects. Com’ere, Photoshop, all is forgiven.

© 2015 Nonesuch Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Nonesuch Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

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It is but a small step from enchanting to moving. The family scene – joyful and tender at the same time – on the cover for The Longest River, the debut full-length release for British folk singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney, made an immediate impact on me. When checking the credits I noticed that both the photographer and the art director had the same family name as the artist. There had to be more to this story, so I decided to investigate. I contacted Olivia who was touring the East Coast and is still performing in the US at the time of publication.

Olivia Chaney | “The photograph on the cover was taken by my mother Lisa Chaney, who is a writer and biographer (and who needs to update her website!). It shows my father Edward Chaney and myself when I was a young girl. I have to thank Nonesuch for having faith in me. The most obvious and commercially sound solution would have been to follow convention and have a picture of me with a guitar on the cover. Yet they went along with this unknown, more mysterious, complex and powerful image. All it took was some explaining and justifying. But that is probably why Nonesuch are such a renowned label, because they are willing to take those risks…”

What was your motivation to choose this image?

Olivia Chaney | “Well, it could have been all sorts of things. Yet somehow it didn’t feel sufficient to just have a photo of me – or at least, I didn’t have the right image of me for the cover, none that was interesting, intriguing enough. I wanted to draw the viewer in, just like you do with the listener of your music or album. And yes, it ended up being a nice homage to my father who has helped me so much. More than that it documents my whole family: the disjointed-ness and the together-ness, the strong bonds, the complexities, and of course – hideous cliche though it is – I love the filmic quality and movement in the image. It shows a journey. People have really responded to it positively, even though they don’t always realise it’s an old photo of me when I was a child.”

How did you get the famous Barbara de Wilde involved?

Olivia Chaney | “This is another example of why I am indebted to Nonesuch. They introduced us, as she had done a few of their artist’s covers before. My sister Jessica Chaney (previously art director of Apollo Magazine and The London Magazine, now freelance art director, designer, and mother of 2) provided all the more abstract images. Finally my friend, puppet-maker and illustrator Raisa Veikkola of Theatre of Dolls did the Egyptian Goddess of the Sky, Nut illustration, over-arching the river Nile (but with her own lovely star-filled interpretation). It is a joke which I explore more ‘seriously’ in the title track Swimming in the Longest River.”

All text on the cover is set in W.A. DwigginsElectra® typeface.

© 2015 Republic Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Republic Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

Jekyll + Hyde, the fourth major label studio release for the Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band includes influences of rock, hip-hop, gospel, and big band. This mainstream album sleeve gets bonus points for how the use of colour in the black-and-white portrait of the artist is reflected in the typography, a nice visualisation of the album title. I understand the desire to put the band’s official logo in the lower right corner for marketing purposes, but this design would have been better without it. Talk about typographic stereotypes…

© 2015 Universal Music – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Universal Music – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

So you thought grunge typography had completely faded into the past? Not really. Fly International Luxurious Art, the sixth solo release for Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon, proudly sports a typeface of one of the important figures from the much-maligned typographic movement. Steve Farrell’s Entropy is actually a very appropriate choice of typeface for this album cover. In my presentation Oversampled at TYPO Berlin 2007 “Music” I challenged the generally accepted notion that grunge typeface design was the equivalent of the punk movement in music. You could argue that – just like punk encouraged countless young people to simply pick up a music instrument and start trashing without caring too much about conventions – the availability of affordable personal computers and typeface design software helped aspiring type designers with no formal training to adopt a DIY attitude. Many learned to design typefaces by disassembling the outlines of existing typefaces and reconstructing them into bastard hybrids. Yet this approach is more similar to sampling in hip hop rather than punk, as you can compare it to the rhythm tracks that are composed by rearranging snippets of existing songs.

Entropy is a good example of this phenomenon, three levels deep – a remix of the Memphis® typeface and Missive, which in turn is an amalgamation of the (probably) News Gothic™ and Adobe Garamond™ typefaces with bits of Arbitrary Sans thrown in, which in turn is another prime specimen of grunge typeface design. Farrell even took his concept one step further, adding fragments of the Park Avenue® font to produce Osprey. While the ethics of grunge typeface design can be considered questionable (outlines were appropriated without permission from, nor compensation to the original designers) I still think the movement was a key turning point in type history. When you ignore the vast majority of more-or-less well-meaning amateurs there is still a large number of those early grunge-era enthusiasts who evolved into bona fide typeface designers. As a result of that in the early 2000s there were more type designers under 30 than ever before.

© 2015 Arbutus Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Arbutus Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

Calgary-based multi-disciplinary designer and art director Marc Rimmer is credited on all three of Braids’ studio albums for both the design and the “title typeface”. While everything looks gorgeous in the image department, the cover for the Deep in The Iris, the third full-length release for the Canadian experimental pop trio Braids, is marred by the somewhat amateurish typeface designed by Rimmer. In a minimal design like this one, every single detail needs to be perfect because you work with so little. If the quality of the typeface design is lacking, it brings down the complete artwork. While you can debate endlessly about the general feel and style of a typeface – de gustibus yad yada – the structure of the letter forms and their proportions give us more objective reference points that allow us to assess its soundness. In this case the ‘A’, ‘H’ & ‘N’ are too narrow, while the ‘E’s look a little wide and the size of the bowl on the P can use some optical correction. A possible reason for having these inconsistent proportions would be if the typeface were monospaced – the serifs on the ‘I’ would support this – yet the spacing is proportional, so that explanation doesn’t fly.

© 2015 Warp Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Build.
© 2015 Warp Records – Click the image to see the album cover on Build.

No, Squarepusher’s Damogen Furies – recorded mostly on the road, in single takes with no edits – takes a similar approach, but with so much better results. The image as well as the typography in the striking album cover reflect both the systematic and the random aspects that are so prevailing in intelligent digital music. The truly monospaced composition with alternating right-side up and upside-down lines is systematic, yet the insertion of variant square letter forms introduce chance elements. I asked Michael C. Place of Build how the artwork came to be.

Did Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) give you a brief, or do you get free reign?

Michael C. Place | “I find most music work is quite organic, and very rarely regimented. It really depends on the artist/label. I tend to work collaboratively with the artist, making sure we get the best result possible. If we are both happy then I am happy. For this project we met Tom for an initial meeting, to see if we shared common ground, and to make sure we could get on. From there on it followed the usual itinerary – discussing themes for the artwork, listening to the album a lot, exchanging ideas for the cover shoot with the photographer (our long-time friend and collaborator Timothy Saccenti). Once some ideas started to take shape we pitched them to Tom and Warp, then talked some more to Tom via email and phone. After the shoot I started playing around with the raw photography to get what we had discussed and did some test layouts. I always find it really interesting how much a photograph can come alive with sensitive placement of type.”

How did you come up with the distorted images?

Michael C. Place | “They are a visual representation of the music on the album – I liked the idea of the imagery being affected in a similar way to the music. I didn’t want the image to be perfect. Tom was a little unsure at first, and it took him a while to be comfortable with the idea of himself being represented in such a distorted fashion. We also really wanted to put Tom at the forefront on the sleeve; on the previous album he was in a helmet. The typography is very minimal so it wouldn’t compete with the main image. Tom had written this great piece about making the album. More than that, it was a real statement about the music industry in general, so we decided to strip back the use of type and bring the text to the fore for the inner sleeves and CD booklet. The typeface is Maison Neue Mono by Milieu Grotesque, which we decided to customise in response to the fact that the album was made using custom-built software. I wanted the typography to reflect that customisation in a subtle manner.”

But… waitaminit! Is it Maison Neue Mono? Or should it be Neue Maison Mono? Just like it is the Neue Helvetica® typeface, not Helvetica Neue.

© 2015 Domino – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2015 Domino – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

Fading Love, the debut full-length release from Berlin-based British DJ/producer George FitzGerald visualises the concept of electronic music with a slightly randomised pattern of repeating graphic elements and two simple lines of the Rotis® Serif font in the bottom right corner. Although… is that really the serif variant of Otl Aicher’s iconic super family everybody loves to hate (or hates to love, depending on your inclination)? Everything looks fine except for the lowercase ‘a’. The top terminal is supposed to be teardrop-shaped, yet here it is more of a beak. Could this be one of those infamous rip-offs where pirated versions of popular typefaces were “created” by changing a couple of key characters?

© 2015 Full Time Hobby – Click the image to see the album cover on The Line of Best Fit.
© 2015 Full Time Hobby – Click the image to see the album cover on The Line of Best Fit.

The Fine Art of Hanging On, the fourth full-length release for The Leisure Society, the British folk band led by Nick Hemming, was influenced by a friend’s struggle against cancer. The artwork by Owen Davey is a beautiful metaphor for the sense of loss that comes with the battle against the unforgiving disease. Owen is an award-winning freelance illustrator, living and working in Leicester, UK. He has been working with The Leisure Society since 2010, when he did some special edition covers for Into the Murky Water as well as some pieces for singles from the album. Owen has known Helen Whitaker, the flute player in the band, since college and they have stayed in touch over the years. At some point Helen showed his work to Nick, and the rest is history. I asked Owen what the thematic link is between the image of the astronaut and The Fine Art of Hanging On?

Owen Davey | “The concept for the cover is based around the idea of an astronaut that is reaching for something, but tethered to something that is pulling him the other way. It’s essentially a visual metaphor for nostalgia and wishing you could regain your youth. A lot of the tracks on the LP have this sense of a lost youth and desperately trying to cling onto things from your past. The spaceman is intentionally rendered as quite lonely within the space, and you cannot see exactly what it is that he is reaching for. I like a bit of ambiguity within my work for The Leisure Society because it allows the viewer / listener to make up a bit of their own mind about what’s happening in the imagery.”

“With the rest of the LP artwork, I cherry-picked lines from other songs, and tried to create a retro-futuristic story about the past and future of this astronaut guy. You see the death of his Avalon-inspired planet, the boarding of ships, and the inevitable abandoning of something he never wanted to leave.”

“I wanted the whole image to feel retro yet futuristic at the same time. I also didn’t want it to look too friendly. There had to be a sort of alienation to the way the text was used with the character in the space; something pragmatic and rigid. So I looked for a typeface with straight lines to make it feel digital. Octin College reminded me of alarm clock number typefaces, but was still different enough to not seem too cliche. It has no curves within any of the letters. Personally I like the shapes of the individual characters, and overall I felt it suited the artwork appropriately.”

Trademark attribution notice
Electra, Neue Helvetica, Memphis and Rotis are trademarks of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. News Gothic is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Univers and Park Avenue are trademarks of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Kismet and Trade Gothic are trademarks of Monotype GmbH and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Engravers and Lydian are trademarks of The Monotype Corporation and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Adobe Garamond is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated which may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Akzidenz-Grotesk is a trademark of Berthold Types Limited. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners.