Was just looking at my Soundtrack post from Saturday and noticed a certain trend in the album covers...
Guess what I googled. Guess what returned 287 results.
OKAY EVERYONE LOOK CLOSELY AT THE ALBUM COVER:
At the record store last week I saw the new Travis album, The Boy with No Name. Earlier that day I saw their video for "Closer" [below] and liked the song, in all its Travisness, despite the video being a bit twee. It's the only song I've heard from the new record so far, but it definitely sounds like a return to form for the band.
And I emphasize return. The band tried to branch out with their last album, 12 Memories, which ironically committs a sin worse than being bad—it's forgettable. It was a critical and commercial dud; I remember walking into a record store less than a year after the album came out and seeing a new greatest hits album out—a sure sign that 12 Memories was such a flop that their label had all but given up on the band entirely, hoping to make what cash they could before "Driftwood" escaped the collective pop memory forever.
Getting back to that phrase: return to form. Travis is in the position of trying to resussitate an all but dead career. Reinventing the wheel, they apparently decided, will not be the way to go about it. On the surface—again, I haven't heard the album—the band looks to have retreated to their comfort zone. You need look no further than their album covers. Back is the trademark typeface—which I'm actually happy about. Remember when a band's name had to be portrayed as a logo? These days, aside from Travis, what am I supposed to write on my binder? Also back is the "band in landscape" photograph, rather than 12 Memories' grid of closeups demonstrating the band's poor taste in hats. Finally, the album title: as with The Man Who and The Invisible Band, we have an album title indicating someone only half there.
All of this is just begging you to give Travis another chance, isn't it? Barring actually hearing the new songs, they seem to be banking on their cover design to reel you back in. It's a promise that this is the Travis of 2000 or 2001, not the dastardly doppleganger of 2003. It's a trilogy-with-hiccup. "We promise we've regressed!"
And you know what? I'm intrigued. It doesn't hurt, of course, that I like "Closer." But really I'd all but written the band off in my mind, even though I still listen to The Invisible Band on a fairly regularly basis (not regarded by most as their best, but I think it wound up having more depth than The Man Who). Even liking the song, though, wasn't necessarily enough to get me to pull the trigger. Seeing the album cover and immediately relating it to the Good Travis bumped my temptation up a level, though. (Still didn't make the purchase; too much other stuff is out this month.) At any rate I'm keeping my eye on this one.
Here's the video for "Closer." (Incidentally, why would a band that has spent most of its career being compared to Bends-era Radiohead shoot a video in a grocery store?)
I posted once before about Mingering Mike, but now that the book is officially on shelves I thought I'd plug it one more time. NPR's Day to Day did a two-part story on Mike: the first part is an interview with the book's author, Dori Hadar; the second is with Mingering Mike himself. It's really great to hear the story told this way; for one, you get to hear some of the actual songs in the background, plus this is the first time I've heard the story from Mike's mouth.
But of course the best way to get the full story—and to see all the great artwork—is to buy the book. I was the book's editor, so I've read it just shy of 183 times, but I can tell you that the more time you spend with the story and looking at all the details on the album art, the more endearing the whole thing becomes.
Lately I've encountered a lot of turntable and record–related art. I'd been meaning to post about a couple things but have been procrastinating. But I keep seeing more and more turntables! So today's the day: here's the first of two posts. [Update: second post here.]
The newly redesigned Art Fag City pointed me to the above piece (via vvork) by Kim Tae Eun, entitled Circle Drawing (2006). The crank in the middle of the table is connected only to the right-hand turntable. Turning the crank makes the pen/“needle” draw circles on the rotating paper, creating “grooves” on the paper. The left-hand turntable is there because… I don’t know why the left-hand turntable is there. According to the artist’s statement, there is no actual sound associated with the piece, so I guess the left-hand turntable is there for symbolic value. The piece is visually interesting but I wish there was a relationship between the drawing and the sound. As it is I'm not sure if there's much depth to it.
If you want to see some records with drawn-in grooves that do have depth—or at least a story with a lot of heart—you may want to check out the book Mingering Mike, which will be published next month. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the making of this book.) Mike spent about ten years of his life during the 1960s and 70s imagining himself to be on a par with James Brown, Marvin Gaye, etc. He and his cousin would write and record songs on their boom box, then Mike would create the album artwork. His level of detail was sick: he’d make a full-color gatefold sleeve, with lyrics, thank-yous, liner notes, catalog numbers, and much more. He would take the shrinkwrap from other albums and put it over his so that they’d feel like they came straight from the store. He made actual “records,” also out of cardboard, to fit inside—and he would draw in the grooves, in correspondence with the length of the songs! And he did this over about ten years, from his mid-teens to early twenties. Here are a few:
There’s a whole long story behind it all, including when Mike dodged the draft (yet never left Washington D.C.), plus a ton of albums (with details) in the book, which comes out in early May from Princeton Architectural Press.
You can also see a little more at the Mingering Mike website.
Design Observer points me to The Knockoff Project, where the above images (and many, many more) come from. Much of the content at TKP lines up obvious references or parodies (The Melvins solo albums aping the Kiss solo albums; a few Weird Al albums, and so on). But it's fun to see accidental similarities such as James and Sarah, above, or Depeche Mode’s New Life single and Black Sabbath’s Born Again. There were also a few contemporary albums that I didn't realize referenced older ones (I'd never seen the Kink's The Kink Controversy, which Sleater-Kinney references on Dig Me Out, for instance; and Clinic's Internal Wrangler associates itself with an Ornette Coleman album I’ve not seen before).
Most intriguing to me are the ones that are nodding to a classic but aren't actually parodying it. What, pray tell, are Scott Weiland and J-Live trying to say about themselves by knocking off Blue Train? (The same can be said for Sleater-Kinney and Clinic, for that matter.) Whatever it may be, I can't imagine how to spin it positively—either their egos are way out of scale, or their modesty is undermining their creativity. Are they proclaiming their albums to be as earth-shattering as that which they reference? Or are they acknowledging an influence that casts a shadow over their own work? Whatever their intention, unconsciously they seem to be saying Put my album down, and walk yourself over to the Coltrane bin in the Jazz section.
This brings me, a bit sideways perhaps, to the current “Passion of Kanye West” cover for Rolling Stone. The cover—provocative if you’re 15 years old—is sparking shock in some quarters, eye-rolling in others. The kneejerk reaction either being “fuck this dude for comparing himself to Christ” or “fuck this dude and this magazine for using such cliché imagery.” But if you know your history of magazine covers [here's a good place to start], you’ll see the comparison isn't really with Christ: its another icon entirely West is using as his model.
Somewhere in the interview, West makes the perceptive critique about how we prefer our pop idols: “You want me to be the greatest, but you don’t want me to say I’m the greatest?” He’s right to call us out for holding him to that double standard. But of course, he’s not the first to make the observation. And West knows it, and so do the photographers and graphic designers at Rolling Stone. Who hasn’t seen George Lois’s infamous Esquire cover of Ali (who, by the way, actually was persecuted by society—unlike West—due to his conscientious objection to Vietnam and his Muslim faith)?
Nevermind that West is playing Jesus and Ali is St. Sebastian. It's a small difference, as West makes clear with another photo in the interior:
West therefore finds himself in the knockoff squad. How can you call yourself The Greatest by referencing the man who called himself The Greatest—neither of which, by the way, are Jesus Christ, who surely was The Greatest, if the Bible or King Missile are to be trusted. At best, Kanye is number three. And we all know that’s just great.