Courtesy of Madcity Music Exchange
Eric Geving doesn't scare easily. But Hum Machine's laid-back guitarist and album-cover designer scared the hell out of himself when he combined two ordinary props to create a nightmarish vision that eventually became his most bizarre piece of work.
"I have this ski mask that I always wanted to use for a project," Geving explains. "One night, my wife and I decided to stick it on the head of a mannequin's torso that we have in our living room, and we just freaked out. It was the scariest thing we'd ever seen."
Geving took the masked mannequin into his studio, photographed it and set it against a bloody orange-red background with only half of its face peeking out from the right-hand side. It eventually became the cover of Victim of Vultures, the 2004 debut by the Madison-based experimental-rock duo Voltress. "I had heard the music, and it was dark and bright and hallucinogenic and surreal all at the same time," Geving says. "It was also petrifying."
Which is why the creepy cover works so well. Victim of Vultures probably stands as the single most terrifying piece of album art issued by a Madison musician. The cover tells listeners what kind of experience awaits them when they press "play" - and that's exactly what it should do.
"The cover always has to be related to the music," says Jon Hain, owner of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse and Uvulittle Records. "It doesn't have to be literal - ‘okay, here is a picture of the four people in the band' - but it has to evoke some sort of feeling and expectation about what's inside. If I get something from an unknown artist with just a white cover and faint lettering spelling out the name, I'll think that these people might be a little insecure about putting forth their music. From the moment we have a CD in our hands, we're starting to evaluate it."
Dave Benton agrees. "Even today, in the digital age, good cover art can draw in a potential buyer, whereas shoddy cover art is certainly going to turn off a potential buyer," says the former art major, who owns both the Madcity Music Exchange record store and Boat Records, a local cooperative label. "I see a lot of covers that don't seem like they were very well thought-out or well executed."
Local album-cover art is of variable quality, much like the music that pours out of this city. The artwork ranges from striking designs to blurred, pixelated images created on a band member's computer.
Sean Michael Dargan's The Big Picture looks like a well-thumbed travel journal, while fellow singer/songwriter Mark Croft strikes a pensive profile pose wearing a ratty knit cap on his Sympathetic Groove. Celtic rockers the Kissers are decked out in army fatigues and wielding their instruments in rage in the illustrated cover for The Good Fight. Experimental artist Makeshift Ego adorned its Subfiction cover with an acutely aware aardvark-like creature. Blues-rockers Honor Among Thieves enlisted cartoonist P.S. Mueller to draw the cover for The Blue God, and young popsters 8889 turned a simple black-and-white cover for My Music Plan into a set of instructions for making what appears to be an origami bird.
As simple as they are effective, these images don't appear to be an afterthought. In fact, they make the music inside that much more memorable.
"I think artists can get complacent, making the art secondary to the music and just rushing that aspect of a project," says longtime Madison musician Michael Massey, whose eye-popping cover for Attack of the Delicious borrows from B horror-movie posters. "The cover should be just as important as the music."
When Subvocal singer-guitarist Mark Adkins began to compile ideas for the cover of Nikki's Room, about his painful relationship with a woman named Nikki, he was after an image of a female "who was sexy but sort of forlorn." He hoped to secure permission to use various artists' work for free, but when that didn't pan out he borrowed images from a friend of a friend who had recently photographed her fresh black eye. He ran them through Photoshop, and a cover was born.
"I started thinking in terms of the way we see things," Adkins says. "Plus, eyes have always been among the first things I've fallen for in anybody. So I started fooling around with the black eye and came up with the cover."
The result is a close-up image of the eye rendered in dark green and purple hues that magnifies the cells in the woman's skin to lend texture and detail. "I think I can be accused of doing what lots of newcomers to Photoshop do, and that is overproducing pictures," admits Adkins, who now uses the eye theme in Subvocal's other promotional pieces. "But it's still sorta cool."
Designing album art, it seems, is all about trial and error. "A lot of complex imagery just gets lost when it's shrunk to CD size," Hain says. "I learned a lot about that when we put together the CD art for the Your Mom SRO album Lizards and Stars. That was a collage that was done in a 12-by-12-inch square with photographs, magazines and newsprint. It was glorious, but when it got reduced to CD size, it lost so much of the texture and so much of what I thought made it really wonderful. That was a wake-up call to me about remembering what medium I'm working in. Learning that lesson the hard way has caused me to tell some of our artists to keep it really simple."
Singer/songwriter Michael Brandmeier takes the simple approach with the cover of his forthcoming It's Only Rain. His last record, 2003's Crazy World, boldly superimposed a photograph of his face on a colorful but busy oil painting by Chicago artist Laura Junge. This time, he opted for the image of a solitary raindrop, which took four hours to capture by photographing beads of water as they dropped from a turkey baster. Brandmeier hopes the result is worth the effort.
"Whatever catches a person's eye," he says, "is a good cover."
Keeping it simple has become even more important in the digital age. Back in the days of LPs, there was little else to do while records spun than study what now seem humungous 12-by-12-inch images on the front and back of cardboard sleeves.
"The total-package concept was something I really wanted to do," says Massey, who carried the B-movie theme over into the booklet for Attack of the Delicious and even made the top of the disc look like a slab of vinyl. "I used to pore over the lyrics, photos, drawings and credits when I was a kid, and I wanted people to do the same with mine."
"I would take home a Black Flag record and look at a crazy Ray Pettibon drawing - like puppets with knives - while listening to this great California punk music and ask myself what the hell is going on," says Geving, who designs Hum Machine's covers with a similar affinity for the absurd. "But it all kinda made sense, because the cover let you know those guys were going to be lunatics."
Unfortunately, an entire iPod generation might be missing out on that element of the listening experience by downloading complete albums without seeing anything more than a j-peg thumbnail of the cover. Consequently, artists and labels need to alter the way they approach the medium. Just as they had to adjust to the size difference between an LP sleeve and a CD booklet, so too must they embrace the shift from booklet to j-peg. "Maybe the thumbnail will become an art form itself," Massey says.
At least two companies are striving to bring technology closer to capturing the essence of album packaging. Gracenote, the CD-recognition database company that provides track listings for digital-media players, launched a lyrics service that enables digital-music providers such as iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster to offer legal access to a comprehensive lyrics catalog. "Consumers who used to get lyrics in the liner notes of albums and CDs no longer get them with digital tracks," Gracenote CEO Craig Palmer told Rolling Stone. "Now, looking at an iPod, you'll be able to click the button and cycle through the album art, see the lyrics and follow along."
That's essentially what TuneBooks - a company that exists solely "to save album art from extinction" - has been doing with the interactive booklets and liner notes it produces for iTunes artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, the Killers and Dream Theater. As TuneBooks creator Tom Gibbons recently told Wired magazine, "There's a lot more to music than the music."
Regardless of what an album cover looks like - or even the method via which listeners see it - the medium remains a potent form of artistic expression. "A cover design is the icon that identifies - and is invariably associated with - the music it represents," wrote famed album artists Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (best known for their work with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin) in their 1999 book 100 Best Album Covers. "People sometimes remember album covers even when they don't like the music."
And that's why artists like Massey keep striving to improve their craft. "I like to think I set new standards for myself all the time," he says. "If you write a great song you say, ‘okay, now that's my bar.' And then you have to go higher. I think it's the same way with the cover."