Sunday, July 06, 2008

Judging A Cover By The Album

This article appeared in the July issue of TRAFFIC Life.

Eulogy For A Pop Art Form

I can only imagine it must’ve been like to walk into a record store and see the iconic mural-style design of Pithecanthropus Erectus rubbing shoulders with the extravagant pastiche of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. I am not old enough to have bought 12-inch vinyl records, but CD covers too do just fine. It’s the now extinct audio cassettes and the upcoming digital music that have no use for cover art design. Here’s my two-bit eulogy for what has always been a rather underrated and undervalued pop art form.

Heady Concoction, That: Bitches Brew

Album Artist: Miles Davis

Cover Artist: Mati Klarwein

Bitches Brew is a dividing line in more ways than one. Look at it one way, and it divides jazz into pre and post categories. For if Bitches Brew had not been made, would jazz fusion even have been acknowledged as an important jazz form? Look at it another way, and it divides Miles Davis fans into pro-Bitches Brew and anti-Bitches Brew categories. And would Miles’ Davis electric phase have been as influential if not for his most popular electric album?

This two-facedness is the central theme of Mati Klarwein’s design for the album cover – with the gatefold cover showing a Janus-like character looking to the past and the future. The sense of occasion is not too far off the mark, for the earliest jazz fusion bands were born here, from Weather Report, to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, from Return to Forever, to Mwandishi Band.

If the bold African motifs reflect the album’s intensified African rhythms, their modern look has the same spin that Miles Davis put on those African rhythms to create the slick modern sound of jazz fusion. The cover is a nod to the blues roots of jazz, with a caveat that this is not more of the same but a new art form forged anew fusing the traditional with the modern. The cover not only captures the lacerating bursts from Miles’ trumpet in the title track, but also the sophisticated modal variations of Joe Zawinul’s Pharoah’s Dance.

Mati Klarwein, the album cover creator, is nothing less than a celebrity in the field of cover art design. Incidentally, the cover for Santana’s Abraxas is a painting by Klarwein called Annunciation. While I’m pretty certain Bitches Brew won’t be remembered best for its album cover, perhaps the cover art deserves more attention – certainly more than Andy Warhol’s self-indulgent album covers.

Raw, Menacing, and Incendiary: Junk Yard

Album Artist: The Birthday Party

Cover Artist: Ed Roth

Nick Cave is the enfant terrible of the post-punk scenario. And The Birthday Party is the band that helped create that raw, bruising style of music that he would create in the years to come. Junk Yard is one of The Birthday Party’s crowning achievements, having created the true menace that The Sex Pistols yearned for, and arguably, failed to achieve. Nick Cave’s menacing baritone, the dark atmosphere of danger created by exceptional bass work from Harvey and Pew, make this an angry, unrelenting masterpiece.

The album’s fury is well demonstrated by Ed Roth’s cover design featuring the hot rod masterpiece Rat Fink. In the heydays of punk rock, Ed Roth’s hot rods (customised cars that had a certain edge to them in terms of design) were championed by the do-it-yourself crowd. Rat Fink, popularised by Ed Roth, became a sort of shorthand for the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock, a sort of metaphor for the loosely-produced unpolished sound of punk. Junk Yard has none of that loosely-produced sound, yet it sounds raw, as if band members were lacerating each other during the recording.

Rat Fink’s hunting of the cat, a reversal of the typical cat-and-mouse game; the menacing creature that holds aloft a birthday cake, visually punning on the band’s name; the snorting hot rod, externalising the seething anger, and the twisted delight the anger holds for both the creature and Rat Fink, make this cover design as nothing less than spectacular. And no less significant is the congruity between the cover design and the album’s sound.

The album’s sound – dominated by Nick Cave’s menacing baritone and the dark atmosphere of danger created by exceptional bass work from Harvey and Pew – is angry and incendiary. Ed Roth’s cover design manages to recreate that sound, creating a cover design worthy of a great album.

Political Edition: Sometime In New York City

Album Artist: John Lennon/ Yoko Ono with Elephant’s Memory

Cover Artist: Michael Gross

When you think of John Lennon’s solo work, Sometime In New York City is not the first to leap to mind. It isn’t even the second or third.

His most overtly political work, Sometime In New York City, has neither the immediacy of his previous album, Imagine, nor the tonal sophistication of his last authorised album, Double Fantasy. What it does have, however, is a political vision characterised by urgency. The album translates that sense of political urgency into sound, mostly thanks to the exceptional Elephant’s Memory, led by Stan Bronstein whose saxophone and clarinet bring a breathy sharp edge to Lennon’s singing. Elephant’s Memory and Yoko Ono create much of the unique sound of this album – Yoko’s thin steely cold voice smacking of punk, and Stan Bronstein’s sax showing a certain affinity for discordant sounds of Captain Beefheart.

The album cover, designed by Michael Gross, is a simple newspaper layout that contains song lyrics in place of stories. The newspaper layout seems dated now, but at the time, it was quite the in thing. Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, released in the same year, used a similar cover design. Given the album’s uncompromising political stance, with songs ranging from John Sinclair to the Attica State Prison riots, the newspaper layout seems particularly well-chosen. Now whether Lennon and bandmates used the cover design as an inside joke about the mainstream politics of the mass media is an interesting point to speculate.

Clean White Sands, Clean White Sounds: So Far

Album Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Cover Artist: Joni Mitchell

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young epitomise so much that is typical of the Southern California scene – the clean bright sound, the political slant that comes with their folk-rock influence, the distinctive harmonies, and the jangle-pop inspired guitar picking.

So Far, a compilation album released in 1974, repackaged material from Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu. Containing no new tracks, and no real sense of musical identity (I still love this album though, mostly for nostalgic reasons), the most remarkable thing about this album may be the album cover design by Joni Mitchell.

A felt pen and paper sketch, the cover design works beautifully in that it captures the sunny sounds of CSNY. The half-profiles of the band, showing them picking their guitars – one can almost hear them singing their jangly harmonies – a throwback to the acoustic sound of the old folk musicians. While the incomplete themes and the skewed perspectives wink at psychedelia, the sharp lines, the sunny feel, and the warm colours serve as reminder of the band’s clean sounds that weren’t half as psychedelic as, say, Jefferson Airplane.

The single most important reason why I think it suits the album, is its clean simplicity. Perhaps I can explain what I mean by pointing to the contrasting versions of Wooden Ships by CSNY and Jefferson Airplane. While CSNY’s version makes you think it’s a twisted love story, Jefferson Airplane’s creepy version opens out the possibilities of anti-war anthem that captures a moment in a post-nuclear scenario.

Judging A Cover By The Album

You’re probably wondering if the album covers are really as remarkable as all that. Would we be able to appreciate these album covers the same way if we weren’t familiar with the music? Probably not. But then again, why would you notice an album cover if the music was no good?

Perhaps album covers will die as digital music takes over. Perhaps they will be reborn in another form. Perhaps album covers from 60s and 70s rock and jazz LPs will be recognised as a legitimate pop art form – one best viewed in relation to the music.

Cross-posted on Swung Notes.

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