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John Foster takes music packaging very seriously. He has deconstructed the design of the recording industry through his personal work and his books, Maximum Page Design (HOW), New Masters of Poster Design (Rockport) and the upcoming For Sale: Innovative Solutions in Packaging Design (HOW) – out in October! As well as a monograph of Sub Pop’s Art Director, Jeff Kleinsmith, slated for publication by the label in 2009.

He will be poking and prodding various albums on a weekly basis so please be sure to keep an eye out!

This week’s victims:

The Promise Ring “Nothing Feels Good”

Is it worth listening to no matter what it looks like? I was guilty of paying attention to the naysayers where The Promise Ring was concerned. I strayed away from all things tagged “emo” when they were released and the band had been touted as the leading light of this wave of earnest boys with guitars. I liked Cap’n Jazz and couldn’t see how that had led to this “emo” thing everyone was talking about. They were a much-lauded debut and a re-packaging of their singles before I finally took the dive. I was amazed at what I was missing. The yelp of Davey vonBohlen and Jason Gnewikow’s powerful guitar had nothing to do with this wimpy, whiney style I had been warned against. Instead they were making defiantly pop records with a punk spirit and drive.

It didn’t take me long to realize the boys just wanted play rock and roll with no frills and that is indeed a cherished quality. What the songs may lack in varied texture and depth of production, they more than make up for in the pure rush of drummer Dan Didier’s bashing and Scott Beschta’s popping bass work as the guitars and vocals push and pull around them. Starting with the tight interplay and manic drumming of “Is This Thing On?” and its vocal lines weaving in and out – we are off to the races. “Perfect Lines” starts with Gnewikow’s perfected crisp distortion, chopping out chords as Didier bashes the skins like his life depended on it. vonBohlen does a nice job changing up the vocal melody, showing a pop smarts few bands in this realm have. “Red & Blue Jeans” plays their hand a little further with a softer entry and some “doo doo” choruses, but still makes a big racket. “Why Did We Ever Meet” seems to be trying to catch up to itself as they squeeze in more “ba ba ba’s” and “doo da doo’s.”

By the time you reach the middle with the piano and acoustic interlude of “How Nothing Feels,” you are shocked to find this tiny bit of music embedded in your mind when it emerges again. Beschta gets a bouncy workout in for “A Broken Tenor” and it’s stop start roll. “Raspberry Rush’ is a slow burn where it almost feels as if Didier can’t quite bring himself to play slow or soft in an endearing way. (This would show the path vonBohlen’s work would head later on.)

“Nothing Feels Good” is the standout song on a disc chock full of ‘em. It’s lyrics seemingly played out in a straight line following that melody we captured earlier. vonBohlen can’t quite fully commit as he places joking lines in with direct religious and personal queries until he closes with “got my hands on the women and I don’t know where to put them” all by his lonesome and it comes perfectly together. “Pink Chimneys” and “Forget Me” carry on in the bash and pop vein as does “B is for Bethlehem” which distinguishes its straight rock with a catchy big chorus. The end result is a refreshingly direct and solid disc of rock and roll meant to reach as many people as are willing to listen.

Credit: “Photography by Tim Owen, Art Direction and Design by J. Gnewikow at The Collection Agency, Chicago, assisted by Scott Kawczynski.”

Any signs of creative interference in the design process by the artist? Uh yeah – the guitarist is the designer.

Does the look fit the sound? There are a couple of crimes committed here in my usual checklist as I am habitually doubtful when a band member handles the design and I do detect a few shots of the group in the studio lingering about BUT to be honest I have to throw my little rules out the window once again. Gnewikow has emerged as one of my favorite packaging designers now that he is dedicated to it full-time post The Promise Ring. His firm, Public Studio, is responsible for several of my favorite designs of the past few years. He is a self-taught designer who cut his teeth on The Promise Ring discs and several Jade Tree releases. It’s not fully formed here and you can see his inexperience with production and manufacturing – but his type sense and intuitive design are already noteworthy.

It’s in the little touches like the upside down line of type on the disc label and in the repeating colored circles that vary in size when needed, but always maintain a block to seem greater as a visual whole. Gnewikow seems to have a knack for picking up on simple things around us, and then magnifying their strengths. I have to assume that the colored circles come from those sheets of tabs for marking things about the office and on reports. Where they are visually interesting is in sheet form and in the close placement between circles. Here they serve to tie together photographs from amusement parks, recording studios and staged promo pics – yet the results seem unified.

The justified type is generally well done with some nitpicky points (I can’t throw out all my rules now can I?) and the cropping of the photos shows a sharp eye. The back tray and cover are actually not quite as strong as the interior: which leads us to the strongest as well as the weakest portion of the design. Crafting a wrap to hold the folded piece, the result is a playful interplay as photos that are otherwise upside down come together and a dramatic piece of text runs through the center while the cover takes up the other side, making sense of the migrating circles. When you open it to reveal the additional piece, it is even more engaging as the color opens up and the circles seem to merge and then disconnect with one another.

So what’s the problem you ask? Well, here is where experience plays a factor on both the designer and the labels part. The final piece is imaginative and enjoyable and speaks well to the music within, however, the folded wrap runs vertically and you may have noticed that a jewel case removes it’s booklets horizontally. We all know that on a good day this can still be a bit of a struggle and if you add in flapping components with paper-thin edges, you are certain to have a bit of a tough task on your hands. The booklet catches on those confounded little plastic ridges far too often and takes a little of the joy out of it but Gnewikow would fare better production-wise as the years went by.

Final score (out of 10): 7.5 design, 7.5 for the music