Admiring The Art Of Broken Bells, Part Two

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about the work of Jacob Escobedo, the visual artist behind so many great album covers and posters. He’s worked with Vampire Weekend, Active Child, and The Shins, but mostly I know him for the various music projects of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton: Dark Night Of The Soul, Gnarls Barkley, Rome and, of course, Burton’s project with James Mercer, Broken Bells.

Well, this year, Broken Bells are back with a new album, After The Disco, full of a diverse array of influences, from pop and psychedelic rock, to soul and spaghetti Westerns, to disco and funk; all smooshed together to sound like, well, most of what Danger Mouse ever touches.

Continue reading Admiring The Art Of Broken Bells, Part Two

My (120) Favorite Album Covers Of 2013

I listen to A LOT of records each year — for work and to appease that nagging obsessive compulsive desire to hear everything and discover new things. One of the side-benefits of all that listening is seeing a lot of album artwork, and when you see enough of it, you start see some trends forming in terms of design, photography, layout, typography, and so on.

Continue reading My (120) Favorite Album Covers Of 2013

With ‘Hesitation Marks,’ Nine Inch Nails Looks Revists Its Past, In Music And Art

From Justin Timberlake and David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine to Daft Punk, Boards Of Canada, and now Mazzy Star, this has been a year dominated by highly-anticipated, long-awaited new records from long-dormant artists. Some have been excellent, and others, well, not. (Though, to be fair, the way these things go, it’s practically impossible to live up to any big-time hype-cycle.)

And then there’s Nine Inch Nails’ “Came Back Haunted” — a new song from a soon-to-be-released comeback album Hesitation Marks (out Sept. 3) — and it actually totally exceeds my expectations. For a band that’s been around as long as NIN has, and especially when you factor in extended hiatuses and breakups and lineup shifts, that’s no small feat.

Even the song’s seizure-inducing video, directed by David Lynch, is pretty amazing.

Yet, Nine Inch Nails hasn’t been gone all that long — at least compared to the 20-plus year eternity between Loveless and mbv. And hell, it’s not like Trent Reznor, the enigmatic iconoclast behind NIN, went away either. In fact, Reznor’s profile has perhaps never been bigger thanks to his stunning, Oscar-winning film score work with Atticus Ross on The Social Network and their follow-up score forThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This year alone saw the release of the stellar album Welcome Oblivion, from Reznor’s How To Destroy Angels, a side-project with Ross, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and Rob Sheridan, who’s also the group’s art director.

Still, even with a four-year hiatus, it’s always a music news event when Trent Reznor announces something new — like say, a Nine Inch Nails reformation, a NIN tour, a new NIN album. And happily, with “Came Back Haunted,” Nine Inch Nails returns feeling refreshed and forward-thinking, while also managing to tap into a harsher, industrial sound that recalls the band’s earliest, and beloved albums Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.

As much as I loved seeing these new shades of Reznor (and watching the freaking frontman of Nine Inch Nails accept an Oscar!), I’m excited to hear him return to his so-called roots. Those two records, and The Downward Spiral in particular, were my entry into Reznor’s music back when I was in middle school. That record was a seething, unsettling and gothic mess of grinding noise and distortion that, at 13, it sounded incredible. It also felt rebellious, with songs like “Closer” that were impossibly dark, and honestly, pretty fucked up.

And if the song itself didn’t get that message across, at least director Mark Romanek‘s video — with all it’s grim imagery — seared this song into my brain forever.

I can admit I’ve never gone all that far down that hardcore industrial rabbit hole, but I’ve always looked forward to and respected the ambitions and groundbreaking sounds of Reznor. And while I never reached that upper echelon of extreme NIN-fandom, I did at least have a Downward Spiral t-shirt that I frequently wore to school for years, in spite everyone who frequently reminded me the album cover design looked like bird shit.

It kinda did, I guess.

Like the best album covers, this one is so iconic to me that I can’t help picturing it when I hear songs like “Piggy” or the opening strains of “Hurt.” Likewise, this cover looks how this albums sounds; they’re both entwined; inseparable in my head.

Now, as Reznor readies a new iteration of the band and drops a song so reminiscent of his previous work, it’s interesting and tonally spot-on that the new record’s just-premiered covers also look back to the visual aesthetic of the past.

With Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails has tapped artist Russell Mills (the guy responsible for Downward Spiral‘s art) to create four different covers, one for each format: Standard CD, Deluxe CD, vinyl LP and digital. According to the press release on the band’s Web site, Mills’ artwork was created with traditional materials like plaster, oils, acrylics, and wire as well as some less common ones, such as blood, microscope slides, “burning,” and earth.

The digital album cover version of Nine Inch Nails album Hesitation Marks, “Turn And Burn”:

The deluxe CD album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Cargo In The Blood”:

The standard CD album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Time And Again”:

The vinyl album cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ album Hesitation Marks, “Other Murmurs”:

Collectively, these bold swaths of color look as tactile and textured as the music in the song “Came Back Haunted.” The pieces are lush and beautiful, and yet with an unnerving quality about them. And like Beck’s 2003 album Sea Change — which was originally issued with four covers by digital artist Jeremy Blake — Hesitation Marks‘ cohesive theme across all four covers seems to be making use and having fun with all the various listening formats one might want to purchase — or for the diehards, you can collect ’em all!

Although I haven’t even heard the entire record yet, these images — like that original Downward Spiral cover — will eventually tie me to its songs.

For some fans, Hesitation Marks could indicate a form of recapitulation to an era that fans love the most. It’s a common reaction: Many bands, after so many years of success, tend to relax into a comfortable gear, and simply rehash its hits. But Trent Reznor, no matter what he does, has time and again pushed ahead into new territory; in music, in music business, in technology, in live show production. While these songs and art feel tonally familiar, there’s a sense that Reznor is folding together various aspects of his past music career into one vessel as a means of creating something new.

By evoking the sounds and imagery of my favorite era of the band, I’ve gotta admit I’m feeling strangely nostalgic for the band, and completely looking forward to hearing this record. If anything, it’s just cool to have Nine Inch Nails back.

Now, I wonder what happened to that old t-shirt…


UPDATE 8/12: The next single for the Nine Inch Nails’ album dropped today, and “Copy Of A” sounds incredible, again by leaning back to previous eras, while not sounding retro in the slightest.

UPDATE 8/19: It’s another week, and another update from Nine Inch Nails. In this instance, another album cover, associated the band’s latest single “Everything.” If the previously-released artwork from the four iterations of the new record weren’t enough evidence that NIN is hearkening back to the visual aesthetic of Downward Spiral, then call this cover — with it’s burnt yellow and weathered tan color scheme — definitive proof. It’s yet another gorgeous, textured piece of art to accompany NIN’s music.

For further explanation about these pieces, Russell Mills describes his works more fully:

The artworks, (30 mixed media pieces) that I eventually produced towards uses in the Hesitation Marks releases, evolved out of lengthy exchanges between myself and Trent and in response to the conceptual ideas that thread through the tracks and to the sonic territory that the album explores. I’ve tried to lock into the album’s prevailing mood and echo the album’s essence. The ideas are not communicated in a literal or easily digested form, as this would be boring for me and would insult the intelligence of a potential audience. I’ve tried to make works that obliquely allude to the essence of the subject matter, to its emotional core.
As with my self-initiated works – the paintings, assemblages, collages and multimedia installations – personal ideas and obsessions seep into these works. The organic, the natural, prevailing over or feeding into the industrial, the man made, is a common theme in my work generally and in this instance was particularly apt for the art required.
The works explore ideas of catharsis, of being into dissolution into being, both on a personal and sociological level. They allude to ideas about chaos and order. They deal with ways of suggesting presence in absence. They are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred. They attempt to harness the chaos of a situation, of now, of the personal trauma, of the human condition, into a form that is coherent, a form that accommodates the mess without disguising it as something else. It attempts to capture the essence of these ideas by implication and exclusion. Beneath the form lies the uncertainty and ceaseless flux of the mess, of the chaos.
An amalgam of the contextually-anchored and the process-driven, they are hopefully powerful, arresting, seductive, suggestive and resonant. I hope that they will invite multiple readings.

The Graphic Design Of CHVRCHES

CHVRCHES performs at Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on June 18, 2013. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
CHVRCHES performs at Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on June 18, 2013. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

Glasgow synth pop band CHVRCHES don’t even have a full album out yet; The Bones Of What You Believe is out Sept. 24 in the U.S. on Glassnote. But based on impossible-to-get-in shows at this year’s South By Southwest, and thanks to the strength of an EP and a couple singles — the indie pop jam of the year, so far, “Recover,” especially — it’s become one of the most buzzed-about young acts of 2013.

After finally catching one of the band’s recent New York shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg, it’s clear that hype is justified.

CHVRCHES’ dense electronic dance songs are mostly built around serrated computerized beats, layered synthesizers and chirping sampled voices created by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, all of which propel Lauren Mayberry’s cute, yet commanding vocals that flutter and soars above the mix like embers in the night air. And with clean and buyoant pop hooks, CHVRCHES crafts the kind of memorable choruses on songs like “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” that can fill the club, and later, find yourself singing along to when no one is looking.

Yes, CHVRCHES is a young band. But throughout an incredibly polished 12-song set — where they debuted mostly new songs from the upcoming album that few, if anyone in the crowd had even heard, and then played a perfectly chosen Prince cover as an encore — CHVRCHES showed a confidence, both musically and in stage presence that’s rare at this stage in any group’s arc. This is a promising band that seems to have arrived fully-formed, which makes it all the more enticing to watch where it will go next.

Beyond the music, it’s CHVRCHES’ graphic design sense that I love about the group. For me, all the elements work: the color palette; the sleek typography of the band’s logo juxtaposed with the smaller serif used for the titles; and the basic geometric shapes. And when viewed together as a whole, all these covers really project a crisp, evocative and simple visual aesthetic for this first grouping of songs the band is putting out.

The liner notes for the Recover EP credits Amy Burrows as the art designer, but not sure if it’s only her coming up with all these these covers. Regardless, I really love them, and I’m looking forward to not only hearing more songs, but seeing more album art from one of my favorite new bands of the year.

Album Art Trend: The Work Of Stanley Donwood And Atoms For Peace

I’ve long been an admirer of the aesthetic of artist Stanley Donwood, the longtime visual collaborator of Radiohead, who’s created artwork for practically every Radiohead record. I think I first took notice around the time of Kid A and Amnesiac because the visual imprint of those two musically-tied records was so perfectly cohesive. I love poring over all the tiny details embedded in the liner notes booklets and inserts and it always seems to be the way I picture Radiohead’s albums and songs in my head.

Currently I’ve become enamored in the artwork Donwood has crafted for Thom Yorke’s solo project Atoms For Peace, the new band he’s made with Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Flea and Mauro Refosco. The band’s new record, AMOK, is coming in late February and from what I’ve heard of it, it’s already one of the best records of the year. But originally, Atoms For Peace was put together in 2009 to tour in support Yorke’s first solo album 2006’s The Eraser and adapt songs constructed as beats and samples on a laptop into a living, breathing and danceable beast. That record was exceptional: intricately crafted and dark, but the glitched beats could feel sterile. Live, these songs were allowed to stretch and take on a newfound energy.

At the time The Eraser came out, I really loved the artwork. But now that Atoms For Peace is rolling out its new singles and album, that album cover becomes part of a larger collection of pieces all tied together by the same thematic look: A stark black and white color scheme and intricately rendered pop art-meets-woodcut-style illustrations that just pop right off the screen.

It’s clear that Donwood has extrapolated this style for not only AMOK, but the artwork for the two singles, “Default” and “Judge, Jury And Executioner” as well as the non-album track “What The Eyeballs Did.” On the Atoms For Peace website, you can see that these images are just part of a long, side-scrolling interactive panoramic Donwood has created.

The art for AMOK is above, but here’s all the others, so far:

“Default” single:

“Judge, Jury And Executioner” single:

“What The Eyeballs Did” single:

Now Donwood has even taken that theme a step further into something groundbreaking. Back in December, when Atoms For Peace originally announced its upcoming album release date, it came paired with an animated GIF of a sprawling drawing on a building, rendered in the same style as Donwood’s artwork. In a press release, Donwood described the image as a “scene of armageddon in modern Los Angeles.”

The scene was part of a collaboration between Donwood and the artist INSA, who painted several murals based on the artwork onto the walls of record label XL’s L.A. office building. The various murals were photographed and turned into an animated GIF for a project they’re calling “Hollywood Dooom”

Here’s Donwood’s lengthy explanation about the original art:

“Los Angeles is, of course, fucked. Everything is fucked, all of our cities, all of our towns, our villages, our farms, our entire way of living. and I don’t mean fucked in a good way, oh no; I mean it in a very, very bad way. Our energy rich and culturally complacent society has doomed everything, and really, we all know this. Or at least, we should do. We have run out of everything, pissed it up against the wall, blown it, spent it, wasted it. We’ve run out of money, of oil, of gasoline, of water, of food, of any resources, of energy, of everything. We are reduced to trying to blast pathetic amounts of gas from solid rock and we don’t care if we poison our water while we’re doing it.”

“The apocalypse is already here, and the saddest thing is that we’re trying to fool ourselves that it isn’t happening. Our politicians are fucking idiots, our heroes are fools, our industries are dying, our farmland is trashed and our culture resembles nothing more than a self-devouring joke. Our architecture is hideous and our art revels in empty platitudes. There is no future; we have evicted ourselves from our own cities, rendered our agriculture poisonous, criminalised the poor, aggrandized the rich, honoured the stupid and ridiculed the intelligent. I don’t pretend to stand outside this fucking mess. I’m just as guilty as anyone.”

Conceptually, GIFs have really exploded again in the last few years, as a continuous, looped image, not totally unlike a snippet of a sample, looped into a larger musical song, say one written by Atoms For Peace. I love how this stuff all fits together and in all makes a cool grouping of images that seem to now completely fit the mood of the band’s music. I could totally envision Thom Yorke and friends incorporating these visuals on stage in some way or another. I can’t wait to see how.

Wait, THAT’S The New Bowie Album Cover?

Today, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced he was set to release a new album, The Next Day — his 30th album and first in ten long years of radio silence — on March 12. Along with that announcement, Bowie dropped that album’s first single, “Where Are We Now?,” along with a self-referential and inward-looking video directed by Tony Oursler about aging and mortality.

Continue reading Wait, THAT’S The New Bowie Album Cover?

Album Art Trend: Circles

Even in the age of digital music, I still enjoy looking at album artwork. I love finding trends and similarities between designs and photographs and typography. Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend of circles. Here are a few from 2012 I’ve come across. What did I miss?

Now Now — Threads


Ty Segall & White Fence — Hair


Jens Lekman — I Know What Love Isn’t


Grass Widow — Internal Logic


Imperial Teen — Feel The Sound


Jason Urick — I Love You


Lilacs And Champagne — s/t


Simian Mobile Disco — Unpatterns


Rufus Wainwright — Out Of The Game


Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros — Here

Favorite Album Art Of 2011

I spend a lot of time listening to music throughout the year, making my lists of favorite records, the best songs and so on and on. But in the process I cannot help but look at and think about the album artwork and how that accompanies this music. Increasingly, in this digital age, album art is relegated often to postage stamp-sized icons on our screens and iPhones, already downsizing from the pretty small size of CDs. Maybe people do not think about album covers as much, yet I still love to stare over them like I did as a kid. And I still tend to buy albums in LP format because I like seeing that cover nice and big.

In lieu of a best albums of the year list, I decided to curate this list of my favorite album covers of the year. Below is but a sampling of some of the excellent artwork from 2011, some of which point to a few of the thematic trends in imagery, typography, illustration and intricacy.

New Record Cover Art Trend? Bed Sheets Are The New Polaroid

Seemed like for awhile every indie band would use a seemingly low fi cover made from a Polaroid or retro-looking candid photograph as their album cover art. Pitchfork even looked at this trend not too long ago.

Now, I’m starting to see a new trend develop. Photos of beds, sheets, pillows and people ON said beds.

Here are three recent ones I’ve found, but I’m sure there are way more if I dug a little deeper.

Houses, All Night

Washed Out, Within And Without

Holy Other, With U

So what other albums are employing this? I’m told that according to the New York Times, three makes a trend. So what is the origin? Excluding general laziness or lack of creativity when it comes to album art, because that would be too easy to blame, why is this now a “thing?” Is it group think? Copy cats? Coincidence? YOU DECIDE!

UPDATE 6/18/2012: Recently I found yet another album cover that can be added to this trend of album art to employ bed sheets and pillows and scantily clad bodies. Here’s Violens’ True.

UPDATE 8/30/2012: Holy Other has another bed sheets-inspired cover for their album Held.

UPDATE 4/29/2014: Found yet another bedsheets album cover, this time for the new EP from Tourist, Patterns. Behold:

UPDATE 8/1/2014: The upcoming album from shoegaze metal band Whirr, Sway, has sheets too.

Comparing The National’s Album Art Design

Before he was the the brooding baritone singer of The National, Matt Berninger used to be a graphic designer (albeit one who reportedly distracted himself by scribbling lyrics in the margins during meetings). So it sorta makes sense that he and the band would have a great, clean sense of design when it comes to their record covers. Starting with last year’s very fine High Violet, and continuing through their subsequent singles and EPs, The National’s album art has been particularly gorgeous, with a cohesive, evocative look and feel.

These covers are the work of New York-based artist Mark Fox, whose sculptures have been the basis for, and in some cases, re-purposed into album art. These incredibly intricate sketches and sculptures look to be crafted out of all sorts of textures and tactile materials: wood, string, metal, tape, paper colored with paint and colored pencils, and so on. There is so much detail to these pieces that you want to reach out and touch them, but at the same time there is a simplicity to Fox’s work which allows them to be a natural fit for an album cover.

When viewed together into a series, and coupled with a sleek typography layout, there’s a clear sense of style and direction that seems perfect for the dark, melodic vibe that The National’s music exudes.

Fox’s piece “The Binding Force” was used as the basis for the cover for The National’s full-length album High Violet:

The cover to the lead single “Blood Buzz Ohio,” is based on Fox’s piece, “Jane Jacobs Understands The Beehive:”

The cover to “Terrible Love” single and the expanded edition of High Violet uses Fox’s piece, “Ark:”

The cover to the single “Think You Can Wait,” is based on Fox’s “Cloud (Days Of That Are Over):

And finally, the cover to the brand new single “Exile Vilify” is based on “The White Sawhorseman:”

You can also apparently buy t-shirts from The National, designed by Mark Fox too (Here and here.) Great stuff.