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Type Essays

My Type of Music

February 21, 2014 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our irregular review of album sleeve design and typography looks at the covers for Bruce Springsteen, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Mogwai, Angélique Kidjo, Warpaint, and others.

Congratulations to Shiva Nallaperumal, Johs Krejberg Haahr, Gerhard Großmann and David Wolske, the winners of this year’s Valentype for their excellent contributions. Now let’s return to our regular scheduling with a monthly dose of My Type of Music and attack some of last month’s album covers head on. I’d like to remind you this is an incomplete overview because the artwork is the only criterion for inclusion. If you are looking for a more complete run-down of recently released albums visit the New and Upcoming Music and Albums list on Metacritic Music which I consult for source material.

Let’s start with Bruce Springsteen, one of the living legends of contemporary rock who at 64 (one year before the official retirement age over here in Belgium) clearly isn’t ready to call it quits just yet. High Hopes, the Boss’ 18th studio release features Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello on guitar, and includes covers, outtakes, and new takes of previously released songs. I usually don’t care much for grandstanding and posturing – the main reason why there are almost no pictures of myself looking “cool” while playing drums. Nevertheless it is refreshing to see a relaxed Bruce, dressed in casual jeans and legs spread defiantly wide, playfully letting the spotlights bounce off of his guitar. The gritty image in sepia and oranges hues, full of motion and brimming with attitude, is a good foil for the restrained and classy centered typography in a skyline sans.

I suppose there has to be a deeper meaning to the retro-communist album cover for British songstress Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Wanderlust, co-written and produced by her compatriot Ed Harcourt. A couple of characters in Alternate Gothic were customised to create a faux-Cyrillic effect. This is a delicate exercise because it makes little sense to people that can actually read Cyrillic. It must make the name and album title sound like “Sorhiz Zllis-Bzzhtoy – Shandzyalust” or something like that; don’t take my word for it though. Plus the designer did a pretty sloppy job. There was no real reason to flip that ‘3’ horizontally. More importantly the counter in the flipped ‘R’ shifted. At this size it is hard to miss the mistake.

Domaine – Kris Sowersby’s exciting interpretation of the Latin genre – seems to be quite the popular type family these days. Here it graces the album sleeve for Strong Feelings, the third full-length release for the Canadian singer-songwriter Doug Paisley.

Contrary to the usual photograph or film still on their album covers, Scottish post-rockers Mogwai opted for a graphic approach for Rave Tapes. The artwork by graphic designer and illustrator Dave Thomas a.k.a. DLT was included in Creative Review’s Record Sleeves of the Month feature on their blog. Thomas explains that members of the band sent him old science fiction illustrations and films – in particular Phase IV, the only movie directed by legendary film poster and title sequence designer Saul Bass – for inspiration. Drawing from that source material he connected the recurring shapes and motifs in 1960s and 70s sci-fi films to the visual language of analogue reel to reel tape boxes and diagrams of wave forms, conceptually linking the graphics to the album title Rave Tapes. Read the full story on the CR Blog.

Even though the typography/lettering on the album cover is a perfect match for the mesmerising geometric graphics, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the snarky (and grammatically challenged) I Am So Tired Of Your Experimental Sans.

DLT | “I created a bespoke typeface especially for the Mogwai artwork. The idea was to have letters that were mostly made up of a single continuous line. Starting with the geometric sans serif Neutraface Display as a basis, I rebuilt the characters and added to them as I wanted. I then used FontLab to create a functional font I could use for the band logo, tracklist and all text throughout the artwork.”

In these times of so-called punk artists being more preoccupied with checking the stock market on their fancy mobile devices than trashing away on their instruments in derelict garages, it is reassuring to discover some true punk attitude on the sleeve Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! True to the DYI aesthetics that fueled the original punk movement forty years ago the artwork has a grisly, photocopied quality. In the same vein the image also is mildly upsetting. A section of a breast with an exaggerated lump of underlying human tissue refers to the album title and the theme of gender dysphoria explored on the album – the punk band’s frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgendered in 2012.

Coincidentally the typography explores similarly experimental shapes as Mogwai’s far more clinical sleeve, yet applied to distressed neogrotesque letter forms instead of the geometric sans serif model.

For their self-titled sophomore album Los Angeles indie rock band Warpaint worked closely with Chris Cunningham (Aphex Twin, Björk). The celebrated video director created the cover art, producing a gorgeous multiple-exposure photograph in delicate yellow, green, blue and purple. The delicate and enchanting smoke-like shapes sadly are mismatched with pedestrian all-caps dark red Univers Extra Black in an oppressive black border.

The sleeve for Maui Tears by the San Francisco psych rock band Sleepy Sun was designed by its current vocalist Bret Constantino, with artwork by rock music poster artist Alan Forbes. You may know the Connecticut-born, San Francisco-based artist for the signature icon he designed for The Black Crowes, as well as posters, symbols and album artwork for many other bands, including Queens of the Stone Age, Rage Against the Machine, The Offspring, The White Stripes, AFI, Dinosaur Jr. and The Misfits.

There is an enchanting interaction between image and type on the album sleeve for Eve, the first release in four years for Angélique Kidjo. On the album the Grammy-winning Beninese singer-songwriter is joined by artists like ASA, Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmagli, Dr. John, Yvonne Kidjo, the Kronos Quartet, Trio Teriba, and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Working from a cut-out photograph by Gilles-Marie Zimmermann, art director Paul Ritter injected a surprising dimensionality in the artwork by almost literally weaving Kidjo’s limbs through the Didone-style letters. The alternately straight and bracketed serifs and hairlines add a touch of dynamism to the otherwise rigid forms. Ritter throws in a subtle optical illusion by having Kidjo’s right arm in front of, and left arm behind the letters – which seems logical when you analyse the orientation of her body – but inverting this order for her legs: right behind the ‘V’ and left in front. The clean visual style, superb image quality, and refined typography betray Ritter’s background as art director for magazines like Benetton’s Colors, Elle and Glamour, and his work in advertising and branding for fashion and cosmetics brands.

Magik*Magik Orchestra string arranger Minna Choi joined Gem Club on In Roses, the second release for the Massachusetts-based duo of Christopher Barnes and Kristen Drymala.

Christopher Barnes | “This album was recorded to tape in an analogue studio so I thought it was appropriate to look for an artist that worked in traditional media (as opposed to digital) and whose work had a more tactile look to it. I came across Yinling Hsu’s paintings online and was instantly drawn to them. Especially this painting we ended up using for the album sleeve, which is a somewhat older piece in her body of work. I really felt it embodied the atmosphere of the album through its use of space, content, and color. The use of furniture and household items – disjointed and somewhat alienated from their surroundings – resonated with me immediately. The lyrical content of this album was more physical and relationship-based for me, dealing with themes of detachment and loss, and I felt this in the artwork as well. I didn’t contact Yinling Hsu straight away, but I did have her painting in mind before we had even began properly recording the album, so we were very excited when she agreed to have her art on our album cover.”

The original painting was restructured for the album release poster designed by Adam Larson. I love how he plays with repetition and extension of Bodoni in his typographic treatment. The diagonals added to the album title are such a simple graphic device, yet so effective.

Adam Larson also created a series of three posters to promote the album release show. Their design remind me of Vaughan Oliver’s dark and brooding images for Pixies.

Adam Larson | “Gem Club’s music is melancholic in nature, but extremely beautiful. It is minimal, with repetitive piano melodies layered atop textured backgrounds and falsetto vocal harmonies. My goal was to visually represent the melancholic beauty of the individual songs in the images, and allow the design to reflect the compositions themselves.”

“Christopher Barnes had asked me to create a pre-order item that would be given out when fans pre-ordered the album. I ended up creating a series of postcards with images inspired by each of the songs. It was a collaboration with Heather McGrath, my studio-mate who is also a photographer. The images we created for the postcards were then used to create the three-poster series pictured above. The main typeface I chose was Bodoni in varying weights and styles. There is a classic modernism in the typeface that is also present in Gem Club’s music.”

From (post-)Modernism to psychedelica – the artwork for the self-titled debut album influenced by 1960s music for California indie pop singer-songwriter Morgan Delt was designed by the artist himself. The fact that he combines a career in music with a day job as a graphic designer sounds extremely familiar to me – did I already mention I have two gigs coming up with a fabulous new project called Rock’n’Roots? ; ) When designing the sleeve Delt was somewhat inspired by album covers by Rogério Duarte. Instead of choosing a psychedelic typeface, he went for a hand-traced variation on a circus/western-style decorative wood type face.

This is the part where we descend the slippery slope into hipster territory. Too True by Dum Dum Girls, the indie pop band led by Dee Dee Penny, was produced by Richard Gottehrer and Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes. The album cover is a hodgepodge of late eighties – early nineties influences, complete with original Adobe Photoshop 1.0 effects like Find Edges (I should know, I’ve been there). The centered, underlined italic Didot proves that the current wave of “trendy” typography is simply rehashing stuff that was done 20 to 30 years ago.

More trendy design on Trouble, the second release for Brooklyn indie pop trio Hospitality, co-produced by Nathan Michel and Matt Boynton. Overall under-designed atmosphere? Check. Bold, black diagonals covering a split and shifted black-and-white photograph? Check. Tilted italic sans on pale cyan? Check.

Brian Betancourt | “The final cover art was one of several manipulations of William Mebane’s photos by designer Phillip Niemeyer (there are others included in the liner notes of the record). We thought the stark, minimal design married well with the mood of the record. On another level, the abstraction of a photo of Amber could also be seen as a visual representation of the band’s abstraction of Amber’s songs, which can involve a messy and chaotic process (i.e. Trouble), but is ultimately the process that defines us. Sounds heavier than it really is, though. : )”

Well, the design does translate the music very well visually. I also like the use of Venus, a vintage yet unexpected alternative, and one of the very few faces that has a striking backslanted “Linkskursiv” variant that betrays its roots as a cartography face.

We end this episode with a lovely retro photograph on Choir of Echoes by British indie folk band Peggy Sue. Even though the scene looks rather sexist for today’s eyes, it brings back nostalgic memories of the chorus lines and bathing beauties of yesteryear. The classic engraved letter forms of Eric Gill’s Perpetua nicely complement the vintage black-and-white image.