Type Essays

My Type of Music

February 06, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of album sleeve design and typography looks at the artwork for Black Messiah by D’Angelo and The Vanguard. As usual some other albums too, but honestly, this month that’s all you need to know.

© 2014 Bella Union – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2014 Bella Union – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

[link not found] [link not found] The album sleeve for Best of – a “greatest hits”-like compilation from singer-songwriter John Grant’s former alternative rock band The Czars – does a number of things really well. For starters I like how it integrates the typography into the cover photograph in a clever, not-too-obvious way. By giving the band name set in the Futura typeface that reddish glow it references the “Open” sign in the shop window. My only (minor) quibble would be that a sans with rounded stroke endings would have conveyed the neon effect even better. Furthermore you could argue the typography is positioned in an unconventional, even illogical place. The sky area at the top right or the vertical space at the top left offer a much calmer background than the dead center of the picture, where the many details in the street scene and the high contrast between sky and architecture create a fair amount of visual noise. One would expect this to hinder the legibility of the band name and the knocked-out album title in the Italic of the Mrs Eaves typeface. Yet it doesn’t. Paradoxically the fact that the letters are small ensures the typography remains very legible, more than large type would. And finally there’s that red rectangle. Besides drawing the eye to the type it firmly frames the composition. As a bonus it also emphasises the “shop window sign” effect. Unassuming as it may appear to be, I somehow find this a beautifully designed cover.

© 2014 Tommy Boy – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2014 Tommy Boy – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

The artwork for 36 Seasons by Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah reminded me of Reid Miles’ work, probably because of my 2009 FontFeed piece about Wu Note, Logan Walters’ great series of Wu-Tang album sleeves re-imagined in Blue Note style. The nearly monochrome cover illustration by Dan Murdoch on the yellowed background, with the efficient typography in alternating green and black from the illustration – it all looks like a contemporary, more edgy version of the iconic album sleeves from Blue Note Records’ heyday. The elusive extra light sans serif combines characteristics from geometric and grotesque/gothic typefaces, but don’t ask me what it is.

© 2014 RCA – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2014 RCA – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

Reid Miles’ presence can also be felt on the powerful album cover for Black Messiah by D’Angelo and The Vanguard. Calling the LP “long-awaited” is an understatement – there are almost exactly 15 years separating it from its predecessor, the magnificent Voodoo. This makes Black Messiah the most anticipated work in contemporary music since Gun’n’Roses’ equally delayed Chinese Democracy. The photograph and typography on the sleeve resonates with D’Angelo’s motivation to suddenly rush-release the album as a reaction to the series of police killings of unarmed black men in the US. Creative Jenius Report’s Kendrick Daye explains the artwork by Exposure America and Afropunk played an vital role in catching the attention of the audience and helping the album go viral. The black-and-white photo by Wonford St. James pictures raised hands in the crowd at D’Angelo’s headlining performance at last Summer’s Afropunk Fest. It not only channels the iconic images of the African-American Civil Rights Movement engrained in our collective consciousness. It also is reminiscent of the “don’t shoot” gesture of protest that became so intimately connected to the Ferguson shooting, a poignant reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, we still have such a long way to go when it comes to achieving true emancipation and equality. The two raised fists amongst the open hands create another thematic link going back half a century almost to the day – the assassination in February 1965 of Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X, whose teachings substantially informed the theoretical foundations of the Black Panther Party. According to Joe Coscarelli in the New York Times, “D’Angelo had hoped to commission art for the album from Emory Douglas, once the minister of culture for the Black Panthers and art director for the group’s newspaper, but Matthew Morgan, an Afropunk co-founder, said there wasn’t time to wait for original illustrations.”

The connection with Reid Miles is easily made. Even though I cannot know if the artwork makes a voluntary reference, the simple but highly effective combination of monochrome photography and the tightly-set all caps Caslon 540 typeface is a modern interpretation of his legendary Blue Note Records sleeves from the late fifties and early sixties, the time period the design references on both a conceptual and political level.

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

Move forward one decade. The album cover for Reality Show, the third full-length studio release for Jazmine Sullivan, taps into spirit of the seventies with slightly damaged version of the Compacta typeface. The simple composition using a classic Z-shaped visual path relies on the flat mustard-yellow field of the wall to provide clear focal points. The eye is drawn to the typography and then to R&B singer’s portrait in the vintage television set. Even though the design looks nice, the spacing of the text is dreadful. This is a telltale sign it is not the original Compacta run through some filters, but most probably a pre-weathered rip-off. It illustrates that, without proper spacing, a font stops being a font and turns into merely an awkward collection of characters. And seriously – there are only four words for a total of 25 letters on the album cover. How long would it have taken to properly kern everything? Lazy, sloppy typesetting.

© 2014 Epic – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2014 Epic – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

More of that here. Why do certain designers stop short of a great design by neglecting the typography? Is it plain laziness, or simply a disregard for a – in my not-so-humble opinion – crucial component of sleeve design? I am not talking about the album cover for Meghan Trainor’s debut full-length release Title which is disappointingly dull despite the colourful photography. No, the object of my frustration is the 2014 EP of the same name for the pop singer-songwriter who gained fame with her single All About That Bass. The artwork by JP Robinson and Fatima Robinson has everything in store to do interesting things with the artist’s name and album title: a collage in a triangle-based grid that divides Meghan’s portrait in fields of alternating black-and-white and vibrant hues. The grid begs to be used for a rational approach to the typography, be it monospaced or modular. But alas, all they could think of is mindlessly slapping all caps Futura at the bottom of the canvas, ignoring and thus disrupting the geometric potential.

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

Now that we are talking about modular approach; the artwork for Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper by Panda Bear is a nice example of the visual impact almost abstract typography can have. The title of the fifth full-length studio release by the Animal Collective co-founder is abbreviated to the six letters PBVSGR, then turned into simple geometric shapes made up of stripes of alternating, contrasting colours. A bold approach that is reminiscent of some of the typographic experimentation that originated in the early 20th century, like the Bifur typeface for example.

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

Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up… what is this? Typographically speaking something really weird is happening on the album cover of Evermotion by Boston alternative rock quartet Guster. The geometric sans serif caps obviously are the ITC Avant Garde Gothic typeface, but isn’t that initial letter in the band name… Gotham? Even though it must be unnoticeable to the layman the substitution disrupts the strictly geometric pattern and rhythm of the character shapes. Moreso, even though you cannot immediately see there is something wrong, the text image instantly feels off. The orginal capital ‘G’ is perfectly fine, so I really don’t see why this was done. Maybe the designer was under the influence of certain recreational… substances usually associated with the liquid light show reproduced on the cover.

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

And after the aforementioned substance abuse has killed too many brain cells I guess we end up with something like Slurrup by Chicago rock artist Liam Hayes. I am still befuddled by certain indie artists’ insistence on producing the most amateurish album artwork imaginable. They seem to wear the misguided crappiness of their visual language as a badge of honour. Make no mistake, I like naive art and the vernacular style when it is executed well, but to me there is no appeal whatsoever to this felt tip marker drawing. Oh well, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I simply slipped into old fogey territory without noticing it, and fail to recognise the brilliance of this cover design. Get off my lawn, stoopid hipsters!

© 2015 Vagrant – Click the image to see the album cover on the Vagrant website.
© 2015 Vagrant – Click the image to see the album cover on the Vagrant website.

Absent Fathers – originally intended to be part of a double album with 2014’s Single Mothers – sees Justin Townes Earle’s continued collaboration with photographer Joshua Black Wilkins, a musician himself (see also my review of Harlem River Blues on The FontFeed back in October 2010). This produced a series of gorgeous sleeves with a very personal feel thanks to the signature-like handwritten name of the artist. Scripts mimicking quick, natural scrawling like the Banana or Nothing typefaces manage to approximate this pretty well.

© 2015 Matador – Click the image to see the album cover on the official Belle & Sebastian website.
© 2015 Matador – Click the image to see the album cover on the official Belle & Sebastian website.

In the case of Belle & Sebastian the photographer is more than just any musician – it is the lead singer and songwriter for the Scottish indie pop band himself. Stuart Murdoch’s black-and-white picture for Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance has an undefined World War aesthetic with a zest of cyberpunk. I am not particularly a fan of using the Belwe typeface in a contemporary setting, yet the vintage-looking Art Nouveau text face with its solid serifs and ornamental details nicely complements the early-20th-century-with-a-twist atmosphere of the image.

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

The “beauty” half of the title American Beauty/American Psycho by the Chicago pop-punk band Fall Out Boy comes from the sixth album by Grateful Dead and Sam Mendes’ 1999 award-winning directorial debut, while the “psycho” half references Bret Easton Ellis’ novel and its 2000 film adaptation starring Christian Bale. This duality is mirrored in the arresting photograph of eighth grader Jake Karlen, eyes smoldering with pent-up rage and a black stars-and-stripes painted on his face symbolising a corrupted, angry version of the American dream.

I am starting to sound like a broken record, but again there are major spacing/kerning problems with the type, here the wide engraved serif caps Monotype Engravers typeface. For example ‘Beauty’ almost literally falls apart in two halves due to an enormous gap between the ‘A’ and ‘U’ in contrast with the almost-touching ‘BE’ and ‘UT’ pairs. Seven words, for a total of 38 letters. Give me a friggin’ break, how hard can it be? On a more fundamental level – while the typography perfectly fits the style of the image, I think there could have been room for conceptually more challenging typography. ‘American’ is repeated, and ‘Beauty’ and ‘Psycho’ have an identical amount of letters, so this leaves quite a few possibilities.

Other than that – on the strength of the image alone this is a superb album cover with the potential of becoming an icon for the current generation.

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

I had a little Peter Saville-moment when I saw the image on No Cities to Love, the first release in ten years for Sleater-Kinney, the indie rock trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss. Thea Lorentzen’s desaturated photograph of a bouquet of wilted ranunculus with sparse typography using the Basic Commercial typeface (see also Standard) made me experience a flash of recognition. A quick search of the legendary British designer’s record sleeves turned up New Order’s Power Corruption & Lies depicting A Basket of Roses by French Belle Époque painter and lithographer Henri Fantin-Latour, with the band’s name and the title of the album represented by a cryptic colour code invented by Saville. I am pretty sure this tribute was involuntary, but it provided a nice Aha-Erlebnis nonetheless. A great sleeve design, beautiful in its sparseness.

© 2015 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Carson Ellis’ Website.
© 2015 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Carson Ellis’ Website.

We end with an album cover that is anything but sparse. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is the seventh studio release of Portland, Oregon indie band The Decemberists. The cover was revealed back in October 2014 when front man Colin Meloy performed a pair of songs on the streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NYC in front of a mural depicting the gorgeous cover art by Carson Ellis (read her interview with Rachael Maddux for the Sights & Sounds column on Design*Sponge). The acclaimed illustrator (and wife of Meloy) has been the in-house artist for the band for over a decade, creating all their art ranging from T-shirts, posters and flyers to album covers and stage sets. This has helped the band build a lively and varied yet consistent image that is echoed in their album covers. Most of their albums are lovingly hand-lettered in styles varying from delicate scripts to idiosyncratic serif caps, similar to Crystal Kluge’s and Stuart Sandler’s designs for Tart Workshop, or some of Alessio Leonardi’s or Ulrike Rausch’s work. Standout lettering designs are the intricately intertwined branches that make up the album title for The Hazards of Love and the band name and album title impersonating the sun on The King Is Dead. The covers for their singles and EPs are definitely worth discovering too. Lovely stuff…

© 2003 Kill Rock Stars – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2003 Kill Rock Stars – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

© 2005 Kill Rock Stars – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2005 Kill Rock Stars – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

© 2009 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2009 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.

© 2011 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.
© 2011 Capitol – Click the image to see the album cover on Amazon.