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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 For Sale: Innovative Solutions in Packaging Design (HOW) – out now! 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:

TV on the Radio “Dear Science” 

Is it worth listening to no matter what it looks like? There is no point in mixing words when it comes to this disc – this is a must own.  TV on the Radio had mastered the ability to create 5 amazing songs per release (no small feat in it’s own right) and then surround them with 8-10 decent companions. They were always intense and imaginative and worth having but the creation of a fully realized album seemed to be a far off dream. No more. This is it. From start to finish, an astonishing level of quality songwriting, grooves, creative instrumentation and production and a mix that constantly rewards repeated listening – takes hold and never lets you up for air.

The shift in their focus (as subtle as it can seem at times to old fans) is evident in the one-two knockout punch that opens the disc. “Halfway Home”is an immediate build of a steady groove like the sound of your heart pounding in a strange alleyway. “Crying” is the sound of taking the right turn at the cluttered and soiled end and walking into a chill club scene as it gives into the funk that has lay beneath so much of their work.  It also manages to dip its toe into eight different brilliantly simple guitar hooks as the song clicks away. The dancefloor takes on a menacing feel as the first single “Dancing Choose” jitters and showcases Dave Sitek’s little horn flourishes and production tricks. When it hits the chorus you expect the attitude to amp up but instead it lays back a little with you mind yours and I mind mine attitude that is refreshing for the band and makes for a much more accessible listen – in a good way.  “Stork & Owl” is extremely reminiscent of the string and synth builds in Colin Newman’s “Commercial Suicide” record but the boys then layer over their patented soulful abstract vocalizations.

“Golden Age” is as overt as the group has ever been with the brittle funk and wouldn’t be out of place on a Beck party disc. Sitek’s horns are just perfect when they punch up the joyous chorus. Kyp and Tunde have now intertwined their singing in such a fashion that their combined voice is the trademark of the group’s sound and what makes this group so much more interesting than others who have tread this territory like The Wolfgang Press and others. Here it is shining down on you so brightly that it envelops you with a narcotic haze. “Family Tree” and its reverb-drenched piano is another revelation with such a snaking soulful melody and dramatic arrangement that for the first time you can see that they have a written a song that would hold up under the performance of anyone. Elton John would sound great performing this. I’m serious. It’s gorgeous. (The sentiment might be a little dark for Sir Elton but you get the idea.)

“Red Dress” than stomps out a blistering James Brown guitar blitz into another horn-fueled build and just a tasty damn blend of dark funk. The kind that hasn’t been put to record since the early 80s groups like Pigbag. In the hands of more charismatic merchants like TVOTR, it now is shockingly powerful. The remainder of the album keeps the pace. “Shout Me Out” blending trip hop and an upfront vocal approach into a rocketing second half that makes your mouth water thinking about what it must be like live. “DLZ” has a jazzrap attack around the usual sound these boys tread in and as it should – the whole affair ends in a big, glorious finish. “Lover’s Day” breaks in with a martial beat but as the fight is joined and each player comes aboard, it makes a giant pop shift into gear. It shows no shame in doing so or in the playful horns that bounce back and forth towards the finish. And why should it? It started minimal and dark, but assertive, and ended bright (well as bright as a song with lines like “I’m hungry for you like a cannibal” can get) and joyous with all of the members of the group showing off what makes TV on the Radio so special. 

Credit:Art Direction: Morning Breath and Tunde Adebimpe”

Any signs of creative interference in the design process by the artist? Errr… that is the singer’s name next to the design firm right above this.

Does the look fit the sound? The packaging may not be an iconic solution but for the first time in the band’s career, they have been able to match their notions of what they want with a winning final solution. Having their last album be one of the few missteps in the storied career of v23 had left me convinced that their aesthetic convictions were far removed from their musical talents. This is not a crippler unless the band insists on inserting themselves in to the process and that has always been the case with TV on the Radio from production and engineering to the final layout. Enter New York’s reformed skate punks in Morning Breath who have done excellent work for the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and AFI to Kanye and De La Soul. Dealing with strong personalities wouldn’t be an issue but none of those bands have the abstract and tough to crack artiness of TV on the Radio. 

The team managed to cover this little slice of brilliance in a simple sleeve but with all the right touches. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few cracks in the armor – the auspicious return of having the band’s name displayed in perhaps the worst script of all time – ugh. However, they do so in a clear label on the shrink-wrap (odd that I didn’t keep that for my photos… hmm.) and on the label art. It’s a shame on the label though as it lessens the power of a nice graphic design that plays with the letters of the title and the icon system set up to follow each song (small animals – the turtle for “Dancing Choose” being my favorite.) I always enjoy a label solution that maximizes the power of the screenprint – especially when the rest of the package is photography driven. 

That same icon system shows up on the foldout insert in the opposing pocket. Made out to be weathered letterhead and signed in scanned in blue ballpoint (nice touch over black) with the band’s name, this is a nice and effective way to display the lyrics and credits and also relates back to the science theme as if coming from the “organization” of TV on the Radio rather than just the band. Where it does it for me is in the color blocks on the bottom that are hand-colored in with marker (and then scanned in) as if being planned out for the blocks that follow each band member in the interior group shot. The figures are a nice touch but the setting is a little too expected and clinical (as much as I do like the “Laser in Use” sign in the background.) The spot gloss varnish that sends emanating beams out and over them is a nice addition as well. 

The exterior has a nice feel in using the old school building directory boards to serve as the typography – making for an uneasy layout and glistening little nuances in each letter. It is direct, yet obtuse – totally like the band. Not to mention that it seems out of time with itself, yet still functional and engaging. There can be a lot of layers for the viewer to digest if they so chose. My main complaint is that it is so dark (as all of their albums have been) but does so without evoking a smoky nighttime or giving any hint of the magic within. As the band often has, it dares you to investigate further with its upfront presentation, that ultimately only yields the name of the disc and the tracks within.

The group has made a gigantic leap forward in their songs with this record. Here’s hoping that they manage the complete sweep on the next one. 

Final score (out of 10): 7.5 design, 9.5 for the music