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Judging A Cover By Its Cover 2.0
February 23, 2011 | 9:00AM

Oh Indie Rock, look what you made me do! I usually slowly cull the worst album covers over the course of the year, and then have a fight to the death (in claymation style, naturally) of the truly pungent. Unfortunately, the brackets to slug it out are already over-stuffed and we haven’t even finished off the second month of the year yet!!! So, without further ado, I have been forced to brush off the only recently retired “Judging A Cover By Its Cover” column, give it a 2011 sheen, and get back to talking trash about this… well… trash.

Radiohead. Everyone is talking about Radiohead (though kudos to the age-appropriate Everett True for this zinger: “How can you tell if a Radiohead fan is round your house? All the furniture is “fantastic, amazing,” even though it hasn’t been changed for 15 years.”) The band had taken a turn for the interesting in their presentation of  “In Rainbows,” though it made me weep to see all that energy expelled upon a weak design. Now they re-emerge with a truly awful looking digital painting and the world’s most obviously plopped on type. The photo of leafless trees that is multiplied darkly across the comical horror/ghost blobs reminds me of kitschy pulp comic covers of the 60s. More importantly, it makes a disaster of the clunky white type that is so condensed as to create one of the most uncomfortable moments of the graphic design year – the “I” in “RADIOHEAD” that almost – almost – touches both the “D” and “O” at it’s sides.

It is great to have The Strokes back, especially if it keeps Albert from gassing up and Julian from gassing out. They are a band that has struggled with their sleeves at most every turn – trying too hard moreso than outright failing. The funny thing is that they have remained fairly steadfast with their New York retro fuzz pop, yet the eras being touched on with their imagery can be scattershot. “Angles” plays up the title with drawn angles all over in patterns and shapes and tilted type. Playing out like a 1983 issue of  “Games” magazine, it all adds up to a very early crossword meets videogame sheen. More Men At Work than CBGB. Had Cut Copy rolled this out, I wouldn’t have batted an eye (though that type up top wouldn’t go without comment.) Luckily, they still sound the same. Haven’t changed one, single, bit.

The same isn’t true of Vivian Girls, as they evolve into more than a fuzzy swirl – I am actually of the mindset that Vivian Girls should be required to match their era-refined songwriting and sound with “Nuggets” styled record sleeves (maybe with a tiny girlie twist.) I said “girlie” twist – not “girl scout.” It seemed like they had finally grown out of this simplistic line art by 09’s “Everything Goes Wrong,” but they return to an even more juvenile application of it for their first Polyvinyl release. I never thought I would say that one of their covers looked more unfinished than the debut single, but… this is like a sketch – for a sketch.

There was a cute girl down the street who was going through a stoner phase and I think was of the mindset that getting me in to her Meat Puppets records would be a gateway to my appreciating the Dead. I can see the pothead logic. She was cute enough that I would have listened to most anything with her. So she loans me the records and I finally put them on and not two songs in I am stricken with the most horrendous stomach flu of all time. In a feverish state, curled in the fetal position, I laid in the corner of my bed while side one of “Meat Puppets II” spun continuously.  Unable to stop the torture, I haven’t been able to actively listen to the Meat Puppets without feeling nauseous since. They finally made an album cover to express how I felt. How nice of them.

This also lays down the gauntlet in the “Great Drop Shadow Battle” of 2011. I wish the other combatants would drop out now, but we all know that we won’t be so lucky.

Do you realize that, a few months from now, some kid is going to play classic Dinosaur Jr. to another kid, and he is going to remark, “eh, reminds me of Yuck.”

Not only have they nicked that sound wholesale, but they seem to be taking notes on how to dress your music in shitastic drawings as well. Then they don’t even go all the way with the type, just being dropping it in the corner, with a face 1000 times heavier than the line weight in the doodle. (Copycat) kids today… I do like that the one fella in the band looks like Hair Bear (look it up.)

It hasn’t all been a disaster. Twilight Singers “Dynamite Steps” is a return to form for Mr. Suave Greg Dulli, and this extends to the visual. Using Rachel Owen’s “Peter Schlemihl” on the cover, sans type, is a piece of brilliance. Dark and engaging, the looseness mixed with wired tension is a perfect fit. I wish it kept up the pace on the entire package, but we can’t have everything.

In true Etsy fashion, Toro y Moi released his record in an ultra cute tote bag version. This sounds like something I would hate BUT look at that lil’ dog and his perm and glasses! C’mon – look at him!!! Way more interesting than the background music that lies within.

Even better was The Black Keys winning the Grammy for making halfway decent use of Cooper Black (not an easy task, though bestowing the award on a sleeve with centered type all at the same weight, and nothing else, is a bit of a cop out now dontchathink?) No such worries about the VERY highlight of the evening – Rob Jones taking home the hardware for his White Stripes (now memorial) box set.

Tune in next column when we huddle together and beg 4AD to have the common sense to hire Vaughan Oliver to re-design the Twin Shadow sleeve, before it’s European release.

John Foster owns his very own design firm: Bad People Good Things. Feel free to go over there and make fun of his record cover designs. He deserves it.

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  • william alberque says:

    Bahahaha. Excellent piece. 4ad’s fall from design grace has been long, slow and persistent. Sad.

    I really, really, really wanted to hate Yuck for their horrid cover art, but, dammit, I’ve liked every one of the singles I’ve heard so far. In fact, I would say that Holing Out is excellent – reminding me of Teenage Fanclub – and Despite Everything and Automatic are winning and melancholy.

    But, oh, man – that Radiohead. It’s shit. Like a nightmare panel from the Moonshadow series. Ick.

  • John Foster says:

    William – I wish they would just call 4AD Beggars – which is what it is now, and not sully the legacy. Yuck should immediately tug at anyone 30 and over. It hits ALL the right spots. No shame in liking the music within.

  • Nate Christy says:

    I wouldn’t of thought to make the Yuck / Dinosaur Jr. comparison, nice. The Yuck cover would be good, but the bold font just fucks up the focus. And the ‘King of Limbs’ cover is just… really lame.

    But on a positive note, I think Mogwai’s ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’ cover + layout is gorgeous.

    …and I want that Toro y Moi tote bag.