I have just discovered r/AlbumArtPorn, a safe for work subreddit that’s gratuitous only in the sense that it’s purely stacks and stacks of album covers. It’s also part of the glorious SFW Porn Network, which has provided me with procrastination fodder for an indefinite amount of time.
Objects! Objects! Objects! There aren’t enough hours in the day to sift through all these treasures — but there’s always time for one more…
The malaise in the world surrounding the 1970s (a.k.a. post-1960s) was condensed into several different genres of music, almost all of which were seething with anger and disillusionment with more than a touch of excess. Punk is most commonly associated with the rage coming from of the mouths of babes, but there was only so much that could be done with it. Eventually, the umbrella term of post-punk was coined, and though that brand of music was just as expansive, it all immersed itself in the deeper side of festering rage — a doom and gloom that was left behind after the emotional capital was spent.
What was it like living in a time when things meant what they meant and irony was still confined to English textbooks? It’s hard to imagine an act like Bauhaus emerging in our times and heralded as innovators of aesthetic, but that’s what they were to the writhing mass of the discontented. It was as if someone had finally come along and taken all the glitz and glamour of a rock’n'roll freakout and stripped it until nothing was left but jagged guitar lines and a voice that alternates between piercing treble and penetrating baritone.
Bauhaus’ look and feel fed on the grainy black-and-white outlook of the cover of their first album In the Flat Field — a bleary classical nude in an eternally empty room, heralding nothing in particular. For the record, Joy Division’s Closer (as well as Ian Curtis’ much sensationalized suicide) came a few months earlier, but while the album’s look is strikingly similar to Closer and the grim feel isn’t far off, Bauhaus was always running parallel to Joy Division, reaching for the shadows but taking a different route than the latter’s “synth and space” approach. Bauhaus was always concerned with closing in the space and creating a nightmarish, glammy freakshow front-and-center. You can see the difference between the two acts in the album covers as well — Closer is presented by a photo of a statue with crisp lighting against the breathless expanse of a white background, while Flat Field is full of the blurry motion of a human figure against a stuffy blanket of black.
The encroaching aural space lends itself to a creepy vibe, especially in “Stigmata Martyr”, whose repetitive rhythm section is the sonic equivalent of running around in tight circles. The bass and the drums overpower the entire track, driving it with forward motion and backed with the tinny scrape of the guitar lines. It’s actually the more abstract sounds coming from the guitars — the highly distorted fret scraping and harmonic bashing — that add to the song by amplifying its otherworldly glitz. The element that curbs its takeoff is vocalist Peter Murphy‘s varied delivery. Murphy runs vocal laps around the pulse of the band, hitting low and highs that encircle the bands efforts. It’s the sample of “In nomini Patri et Filii et Spiritu Sancti” played in reverse over Murphy’s singing of the same phrase in real time that ties down the whole track as a claustrophobic inner monologue.
Let’s not forget the other element that’s on the cover of In the Flat Field: the text. White text on a black background is a look that is hard to pull off (and hard to know when it’s OK to pull off), but it fits the bill for this album, since words play such an integral part in Bauhaus’ oeuvre. “God in an Alcove” highlights the kind of vocal dexterity at work in the album, with Murphy’s distinctive voice sputtering a medley of syllables in rhythmic ecstasy. When the chorus hits, Murphy’s singing registers as demon-possessed yelps against the skeletal guitar attack. The vocal passage that starts around 1:39 is a great example of the demented tranquility Peter Murphy is known for in his performance — each word is clear but meaningless, the pace is harried but languid, the rhythm feeds off itself and into a quiet frenzy.
In the Flat Field went on to become a seminal work and one of the cornerstones of the emerging goth subculture, and it’s no wonder with the kind of eerie energy that’s present in the album. As it were, the album exists as a compressed black obelisk, standing as a realist’s monument to the dreary undercurrents of its period.
Text on an album cover is a touchy topic. Most designers will shy away from putting too much text on a cover because it detracts attention from the visual message. Label executives don’t need anyone reading — they need people reacting and buying. And musicians might avoid the text because it stands too far apart from the music. (This blog’s eternal question: Is it part of the work or not?)
The way that Sonic Youth’s Goo uses text, however, is something of an exception in the world of messy-looking 1990s collage/hand-drawn album covers. On its own, the drawing says fairly little — no color, no expressions, no depth. The black sweater of the background figure seems to swallow his torso. And just where the hell are they sitting anyway? But with the text in place, a (very) loosely told narrative is imposed on the image, and that’s when the odd dynamics can come out to play.
When talking about Sonic Youth, non-fans will inevitably throw around the word “noise” — either innocently or pejoratively. More sympathetic listeners will talk about the band’s tunings and infamously enormous collection of guitars. The super fans will mention all of the above with equal enthusiasm and make some comment about “bleeding eyeballs” or the like. What no one really talks about are the vocals.
For the record, I have never been a fan of Kim Gordon, and I feel like this has much to do with her “singing.” Kim vocals are often gravely and trashy, which often mirrors the trashy narratives she’s performing — this is fine by me. It’s just that most times, Gordon’s wailing sing-speak is trying too hard to mimic the scraping guitars behind it, resulting in the pretentious barking of “Drunken Butterfly“. Some songs, though, work better with Kim’s style, like “Kissability” or “Bull in the Heather“. Thankfully, “Tunic (Song for Karen)” falls into the latter category.
A tribute to Karen Carpenter in a first-person perspective from heaven might seem like a strange way to pay tribute to someone, but it works in light of Carpenter’s tragic fate. With her mostly spoken vocals, Gordon manages to encapsulate the faux-innocent tone of the cover text and the murderous cool of the illustration without tacking on the weird incestuous vibe that lies dormant in either of the two stories.
I probably should have highlighted this earlier in the post, but the cover art for Goo comes from artist Raymond Pettibon, an artist known for illustrating the punk ethos in album covers for bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag, and even playing bass for a short time in the latter. Pettibon’s work with those bands is definitely more intense and cartoonishly violent than Goo, but his stark hand-illustration is suited for the rumbling calm of this album just as well. The style of this cover, while less of a snapshot of motion, has pangs of the artist’s idiosyncrasies. The figures are slightly warped and devoid of spatial context, which lends a maddening flatness to the art.
“Mildred Pierce” takes that flatness and marries it with the two sides of SY’s sound — the propulsive, melodic strumming of alternate tunings and the harsh, noisy freakout of fuzz and guttural screams. The combination of sound and vision becomes a nightmarish tableau that serves as a condensed depiction of the album as a whole — driving, sharp, and cool.
The album cover for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti 5 or House Arrest, depicts a warped, mirrored image of a lush mansion covered in the (haunted) graffiti: “HOUSE ARREST”. The liner notes provide the following information:
All songs written, performed and recorded by Ariel Pink at 1245 Norton Ave. Los Angeles, California Oct. 01 — July 02 on MT8X Yamaha 8 Track cassette.
Pink’s music often sounds like profoundly stoned voice-mails from David Bowie, but on the House Arrest title track it’s Ariel’s father on the voicemail:
Hi, Ariel. I hope you’re very happy that your car was impounded for not paying any of the parking tickets. I hope you learned your lesson. … You are an irresponsible individual. I’m really very upset with you, Ariel. You are unbelievable. Call me when you have a chance.
So presumably without his car, Ariel isn’t driving anywhere. Instead he’s going to stay home and record the spooky, heartfelt, and damaged “Getting High in the Morning” and “West Coast Calamities”. Ariel had alluded to his parents and his home ridden-ness before House Arrest. See The Doldrums (1999) title track: “I’m living with my mom and dad / couldn’t put the bong down… yeah, I stay in my room today”.
Despite the references to being a hermit, intense parental disappointment, and getting high, House Arrest isn’t all doldrums. It’s a celebration of pop music recorded in Pink’s Los Angeles utopia. On “Hardcore Pops Are Fun” Pink sings:
Pop music is free
For you and me.
Pop music’s your wife
Have it for life.
Pop music is wine
It tastes so divine
A promotional video for Ariel’s early releases shows him cruising the West Coast in a red convertible, joyfully flipping his hair to the song “Almost Waiting”, which features a searing guitar and Pink harmonizing with himself:
Hey girl know what you’re thinking
you’re just waiting for me to call
almost waiting for me to walk down the hall
almost waiting for your garden of love
Still, for more of Ariel and his father, skip to 1:55 where Mr. Rosenberg tells his son that he “ruined Beverly Hills by being a rock and roller.”
House Arrest is an artifact from a pre-discovery period of Ariel’s fascinating career. The album was recorded in 2001-02 but would only experience massive exposure after being reissued in 2006 by Animal Collective’s label, Paw Tracks. There is a certain charm in knowing that these songs existed for 4-5 years before being widely heard. Ariel is just doing his thing here. And In the words of his friend/collaborator/predecessor R. Stevie Moore, “I like to stay home.”
Here’s a strong contender for the quintessential album of the 1990s — bold, patchy color fields, seemingly arbitrary objects, almost no depth perspective, and a nice big dose of cutoff narrow sans-serif. Also worth noting is the theme of the record, which is apparently lemons — a fruit of the brightest and sourest variety. Keep in mind there’s no lemonade in sight.
Like many 90s albums, this one is rife with angst and lovelorn epithets. If the visuals seem too vague (or even pointless) there’s always the text on the cover’s right side, which is actually the albums lyrics overflowing from the liner notes onto the front. That first song is indeed titled “Light from a Dead Star”, and it starts off like this:
He lives his life in a world full of women
And he takes what he wants from their love
And he throws the rest away
Speaks for itself doesn’t it? But as soon as you might think the whole album is an ode to trashing boyfriends, the second song’s lyrics come into view — a song called “Kiss Chase” that ends the column with the words:
Told me not to cry
Said that I’d survive
So the album begins, with the sound and visuals bleeding into one another right on the front cover, watermarked with the album’s title — branding the work as one of bittersweet love.
The calamitous nature of Lush’s lovelife manages to take form in their song aptly titled “Lovelife”. From the start, the track boasts the cheery twinkling guitar sound of classic dream pop on uppers, keeping in line with its mid-90s vibe (chorus, tremolo, and flanger over pseudo house drum beats). It all soars overhead from the start, the fresh crackle of tambourine shakes sweetly lifting the composition towards the heavens. But those lyrics — my god. It starts mildly with a bizarre aphorism:
You are the one
In your concrete arms I adore you
Dirty and dear
No sweat so far — just an off-color characterization. And then, the sound/vision irony starts reaching Cardigans-like levels with lines like:
Every door conceals a dream and a nightmare
Nothing is ever really pure in the stale air
Poison my lungs, my blood is full of lead
My love for your still burns
This dark undercurrent appears throughout the album in more overt places, namely in the seven-and-a-half minute dirge of “Desire Lines“, which sounds just like a desperate, depressive state of self-aware catatonia — a festering prison of meat, stuck inside on a rainy day. “Undertow” takes a more subtle approach to the same murky depths. The track once again harnesses the propulsive drumming of “Lovelife”, but with a different set of accompaniments. Falling in line with the concurrent shoegaze movement, the track churns with swirling guitar distortion, mimicking the overpowering currents of the ocean. The irony is absent here — instead, we get a direct line of sight to the natural event referenced in title, sweeping the listener in a dreadful froth. The effect is quite beautiful for its inundating qualities — confronted by a blast of noise and the restless energy of a determined beat, a haunting echo calls out: “Let me try to pull you free.”
Could anybody get away with this kind of album in our time? Probably, but not likely. Not after Radiohead perfected the blasé doldrums on 2000′s Kid A, and especially not after the anti-emo backlash of the mid-2000s. Catharsis these days is either channeled through the sexualized horrorshows of pop and rap bombast, or barely audible through the acoustic whispers of bearded gentlemen. Lush’s sweet spot between the two seems to belong keenly to the 90s — that era of Gen X and the Smashing Pumpkins and the Cranberries and four lemons on a field of red and black.
I’m thinking of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That shack that ol’ Leatherface called home — a house in the middle of a homestead riddled with bones and deteriorating corpses and bodies stuffed in iceboxes. I admit that I haven’t actually seen the film (horror movies are one of my chronic weaknesses), but the sentiment is something I can dig — primal fear harnessed vicariously, pumping the blood in your veins through heart and loins and engaging your flight instinct. Run. Run! RUN!
But despite the the severe looking shanty on the cover of Veronica Falls’ self-titled album, almost none of that get-the-fuck-out-of-Dodge reflex comes into play here. Instead of life-threatening fear, the driving force here comes from down-stroked basslines and hammered drums. The aesthetic is more beachy than backwoodsy, bolstered further by the strange wooden lever device, whose name I never knew but whose purpose I always knew was to lift cargo from dock to ship and vice versa. It’s that strange conglomeration of two overgrown twigs mounted together that gives a distinctly bizarre twist on the whole scene — there’s no apparent body of water, and the monotone, old-timey photo flattens any perception of depth, making it appear more like a giant trebuchet in the middle of a field.
Despite being in a minor key, “Bad Feeling” gets your toe-tapping as well as any other reverb-y jangle pop revival tune this side of the millenium. Before long the whole tune starts to run away in a fit of skeletal guitar chords and ghostly “oohs”, always hinting at the feel of the cover — sparse and spatial with a hint of creepiness. But then the best chord changes and pop hooks kick in and suddenly the whole track takes a turn for the hackneyed cutesy interplay (and I mean that in a good way) that stands as the trademark of any C86 highlight. The boy-girl harmonies seal the deal: suddenly the cover photo seems like nothing more poignant than the best centerpiece on the table at a dinner party — always a sideshow for the main course.
This is the meat of the album right here. “Beachy Head”, the band’s lead single, was released as a demo a year before their debut album and is more than likely the main reason for any clamor at all about the self-titled release. This is where Veronica Falls proves their mastery of pop instrumentation and vocal prowess. The track starts off like the last — with the clamor of jangly guitars and the same propulsive drumming — only with the distinction of its being significantly louder than the rest of the album. “Bad Feeling” takes a few moments to get off the ground, whereas “Beachy Head” is 100% thrust and liftoff from the get-go. The subtle sinister streak present in the rest of the album is almost overshadowed by the sheer growl of this 2 1/2 minute catharsis. That lack of subtlety doesn’t turn the track into a bludgeoning curmudgeon, though — all the intertwining guitar lines and dynamic harmonies are still there, only louder and with more beautifully crackling distortion.
If you couldn’t tell by my writing, the cover falls short of the kind of excitement present in the music. The vintage photo, devoid of context and/or people, hasbeendone, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its uses — this album just isn’t ideal for it. I get it, though: Veronica Falls has a flash of gloomy, doomy air, like a black streak running through their surfy golden locks. But an album cover this austere might better serve the next witch house act.