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Beck: Modern Guilt

Well this was unexpected. A new Beck album, for someone interested in album cover art like myself, is always cause for interest. After the graphic excess of his previous release ‘The Information’, with its’ DIY sticker set, what was in store for the next cover? Bet you weren’t thinking it was going to be a rip on Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, can’t say I saw that coming.

So what to make of this rather sombre presentation. Beck has always been about the subtle re-invention of himself and his music. He’s come a long way from the twenty something dude singing about being a ‘Loser’. With the truly creative artist it’s always about growth, in whatever medium they choose to work in. There comes a point (it’s usually a mid 30s thing) where the artist reaches a plateau in their output – creatively they’ve achieved much of what they set out to do – the audience has also come to expect a certain amount from the artist, where to from here then?

The immediate reaction is usually a certain amount of reflection upon what has gone before, and what can be done to make it fresh and unexpected again. The first step is tearing done all those accumulated expectations – getting back to basics as it were, to build something up again. Looking at the cover for ‘Modern Guilt’ – it seems like Beck’s call to tear it all done and start anew (much like Dylan did with ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – it all starts to come together now! The cover looks like a combination of a Reid Miles Bluenote album design from the 50s mixed with the ultra minimalism of a Tom Hingston designed ‘Spiritualized’ album. Musically, that’s probably not a bad analogy as well – the sounds are very back to basics, rootsy and mellow, but flourished with a typical dash of techno, drum & bass twiddling. Seen in that light, the cover works a treat, it’s seemingly ‘off-the-cuff’ design aesthetic actually being a lot more considered than you would think. It’s therefore a very interesting representation of an artist cutting back the extraneous, the expectations of years of releases, to find some footing for where his music will take him next.

Massive Attack: Mezzanine

The mono album cover obsession/examination continues, this time looking at Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of the whole ‘trip hop’ scene, but Massive Attack are a whole different animal, as ably demonstrated by the cover to Mezzanine. If listening to the album conjures anything immediately, it’s a creeping menace that builds as the music progresses. The heavy metal beetle on the cover certainly qualifies for the creepy bit, it’s also a brilliant way to express what you can expect from the music. It’s an amazing graphic representation of the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, calmness and anxiety, the brooding intensity of the songs. Both graphics and sounds are confrontational, perfectly complimenting each other.

The artwork is a collaboration between designer Tom Hingston, fashion/art photographer Nick Night and Massive Attack band member 3D. Tom Hingston had this to say about the collaboration.

“The band’s collective philosophy was born out of hip-hop and club culture. 3D, a former graffiti artist, was looking for a different way to work. He came up with themes and words applicable to the project, so that designer, photographer and band could push and pull each other in different directions until we were in a place we were all happy with.”

Happy seems an unusual choice of word for such dark and menacing imagery. Like the music though, there’s a lot to discover when looking deeper into the cover. It may not be immediately apparent that the ‘beetle’ is actually an intricate organic/metallic sculptural piece. I also have to mention that this beautiful overall mono colour concept is topped off inside with a plain vibrant orange CD disk. It juxtaposes nicely against the rest of the graphics, a concept I have stolen/borrowed on many occasions for my own work 🙂

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Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about just what are my favourite album cover designs of all time, and while an oredered list of my preferences seems to change daily, one thing that has become apparent id that a lot of my favourite covers are monotone. Just what that says about me, I don’t know, but I thought that over the next couple of weeks I’d discuss some of my favourite ‘monotone’ covers of all time.

First up, Springsteen’s 70’s classic ‘Born To Run’. We’re probably all familiar with the superstardom he reached in the 80’s, but that wasn’t always the case. Up to the release of Born To Run, he had released a couple of albums that had received critical praise, but weren’t doing much on the charts, he had yet to transfer the energy and popularity of his live shows into any significant album sales. This was all about to change though.

With his new album, photographer Eric Meola wanted to capture the character of Springsteen from his concert persona, but not with a traditional live shot. By using a black and white photo and a plain white backdrop, there would be nothing to distract from the figure of Springsteen the performer, the eye would go straight to his movement and shape.

Meola was right on the money, the album cover has gone on to be one of the most iconic images of rock. It’s a beautiful introduction to the music on the album, Springsteen leans on Saxophonist and E-Street band member Clarence Clemens, illustrating how he had come to depend on his bandmates to help him encapsulate the full scope of his songs. The stark black and white photo and a white background of a cheeky grinned Springsteen looking back at Clemens is a perfect accompaniment to the grandeur of the albums lyrics used to describe the seemingly mundane and every day events of his songs protaganists. Ultra thin lettering lets the photo tell it’s story in an elegant understated manner, a type treatment seldom used at the time, but now a design classic.

The album is over 30 years old but still stands the test of time both musically and grapically, certainly benefiiting from the larger canvas of the vinyl album era.

Previously I have reviewed the beautiful album artwork for Josh Pyke’s ‘Memories & Dust’, I was so enamoured, I decided to get in touch with the artist, James Hancock, and throw a couple of questions his way regarding his work methods, ideals and ambitions. He’s currently on a bit of a world jaunt, but he’s kindly answered, and the interview follows below.

A bit of background on James from his bio. James is based in Sydney, Australia. His work draws together elements taken from found objects and hand-generated content from a variety of media such as drawing, collage, printmaking and painting. His work projects a naievety, and seek the fantastical and cute in explorations of the realness of objects and emotions and their macro and micro processes. He also explores animating his world into video works. He runs his own graphic studio and has exhibited in Australia and internationally. He is also very active as a curator of exhibitions of national and international work as part of the SPACE3 collective, which connects him to a strong creative community.

Chris Bowden: When did you first decide to become a designer. Was there a proverbial ‘pivotal moment’?

James Hancock: Not sure there really was one, and not even sure I’d class myself as a straight ‘designer’. I’ve drawn all the time, by myself, with other people, I’ve gone through design university which satisfied one part of my personality, but I also took subjects at art college and have always found myself somewhere in the middle of art and design practices. I consequently have loved people that are between disciplines; writers that draw, musicians that paint, collectors that make sculpture. I wonder if the ‘pivotal moment’ was the moment I accepted this dychotomy within myself.

CB: Who or what inspires you at the moment?

JH: I am consciously influenced by outsider art and ideas of hoarding and psychology. This outside observation of the world and psychological analysis of internal worlds.

Contemporary artists like Julie Mehrtu, and sculptors like Nancy Rubins, and conceptual artists such as Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla – google them, they do some really fun stuff. I find it much more inspiring to look at things outside of the graphic design world. I get easy sucked into trendy aesthetics and I feel much more satisfied if I draw my creativity from a personal world of experiences rather than referencing current design trends. I’m moving around the world a bit at the moment, with studios in different cities, trying to make work on the run, and I really think this studio-in-transit and being around new environments means I constantly re-address what it is I do. Sometimes this stops me doing anything at all, but I always come back to drawing as the basis of everything, as a way of releasing the buildup of creative need.

CB: Which of the projects that you have worked on in the past are you most proud of and why?

JB: From my client based work I guess the Josh Pyke stuff really stands out as a solid project, with print, animation, and new media applications all working together. This project also started an approach of applying a personal art practice to a client based project.

CB: Could you discuss a little about the work you’ve done for Josh Pyke, how it came about, the process, how much freedom you were given?

JB: I’d recently come back from an artist residency in Indonesia and was drawing all these people in a naive anatomy style, revealing the congestion and pollution and density of humanity I experienced there. So lungs contained buildings, crowds walked through the hair, and cars drove through the veins. So then when I came back to Sydney to work on Josh’s first release I started reading the lyrics and saw all these references to things jumping through each other, holes being cut in each other, there was this grotesqueness to it, but on a cute kind of vibe. So after some initial sketches and talks with josh I started doing all these little animals with their insides showing little hearts and music inside. It was a real flow on from my artistic practice of the time, it also lead me to do more works on the theme on a larger scale, big canvases. These graphic elements then flowed on to other releases including the latest one, where it has all exploded outside and the new albums imagery of buttons and sewing stiches together a big mammoth plan. Kind of like an obsessive document, where an outsiders mind is pulling together all these ideas and making a big mind map on the table, using old craft techniques of sewing and stitching to pull it all together. The first album was relatively free, but of course as Josh became more well known there were more people interested in how the album art turned out so the recent album release had much more label involvement integrating his photo on the cover for example. Luckily it didn’t get pulled in too many directions and came together as a very neat creative package.

CB: You have a very individual style in your work which has been used across a range of promotional items for Josh Pyke’s Memories & Dust from the album to posters to film clip etc. With the album being such a success, do you have any concerns that that style will now be seen indelibly as part of Josh Pyke’s image?

JH: I actually like it when artists works become recognisable through a music release, it provides people with an access point for people’s art and the symbiosis of two creative individuals (art & music) coming together can be really interesting. I like it that behind music releases there is also this visual artist that is audibly silent but has their own creative voice on there, so the album speaks across two senses. This chain of creativity is great, and I always enjoyed finding out about artists through cd cover work. It can be a great promotional tool for the visual artist if the CD is successful, but it’s not only a promo tool, it is two worlds coming together. A CD can be a little world when it works really well, a glimpse into all the artists involved, their world. I think my creative world is strong enough to stand within other creative worlds and still retain it’s own identity, I think this is where coming from an artists perspective is important because you are not solely motivated by the client but by your own processes as well. This is what joins the two creative experiences together but also what separates them.

CB: You’ve done a few album covers, any artists you would absolutely love to do work for?

JH: I’m keen to work for any artist, I’m constantly making work and really love applying my world to the world of other creative people. I’m not sure it would be any different (apart from budget) working for bigger more famous artists.

CB: What are some of the things you do to keep yourself motivated?

JH: As I said before I really get a lot out of looking at other people’s creative worlds. Jealousy of those worlds sometimes spurs me on to create something like what I like, but inevitably I create something of my own from that inspiration. Again I think the contemporary art world is great for this, where you deal with abstract and alternate views people have of the world. Objects and images that change the way you think or see, this is what keeps me motivated. At the moment I am surrounded by a friends amazing library, so I am reading and reading and the links I make from this in psychology, biology, fiction all serve to motivate me in new directions.

CB: How do you approach a new project? How do you overcome the ‘dreaded blank page’?

JH: I don’t really feel like I ever have a blank page, I always have images I have previously made around me, in sketchbooks, photographs, reference books etc. There is always a pile of imagery I like to sort through and draw from. I have a folder on my laptop with heaps of scans of drawings and collages I’ve made in the past that I draw from all the time. I really like Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’ project where he has organised all his reference material into one book – this kind of obsessive collecting really appeals to me, it almost strives for an end to imagery, to finish collecting, finish seeing. Then this contrasted with Francis Bacons studio chaos where there is a realisation that imagery will never end and juxtapositions of images amongst piles of images will constantly make new narratives and statements. I think collage is an amazingly powerful process for building narrative and generating ideas, simply by placing images next to each other. I sometimes am stunted by the realisation that the blank page holds the opportunity to go in infinite directions. This can be overcome to some extent by surrounding oneself with images that act as starting points. The infinity of the blank page is then reeled in by a process of accepting or rejecting what you have at hand at one particular moment.

CB: What project and, or client that you haven’t worked on would you love to and why?

JH: I would love to have the opportunity to work with someone with unlimited budget, to be able to do all the things with printing and cross media integration that I’m not really able to because of cost. To do things like get origami folded by hand for cd covers on a small Japanese island, to make sculptural objects and installation sets for photo shoots in the desert… There are these amazing massive prop lots for film and advertising in LA I’d love to be able to go in there and make worlds from what they have. I remember going into the dungeon at the PowerHouse museum in Sydney and looking at their collection… thousands of toy cars, and old science machines, and bits of rocket, and typewriters, I’d love to be able to play with all that stuff creatively. Maybe I just need a massive house so I can start acquiring all this stuff, start making a set to live in that I can introduce other creative people into and work that way?… hmmm…

CB: What music have you been listening to lately?

JH: Just saw a Bjork concert in San Francisco, amazing live show with a brass band and super electronic triggering and improvised jazz drumming, like a weird, creative school concert! also myspacing LA artists such as Lenka and The Bird And The Bee.

Thanks once again to James for his time and generosity. I’m sure you will be hearing about him and seeing a lot more of his work in the future. You can see more of James’s work here at his website.

Josh Pyke: Memories & Dust

It seems to happen a lot in my life that I’ll be trundling along, designing away. I’ll look at a CD cover that I’ve down and say to myself, ‘yeah, that’s not too bad Chris, give yourself a pat on the back for that one tiger’. So, reasonably happy with what I’m producing. Then something will come along and completely blow my idea of competency in this area out of the water. This is what has happened to me upon viewing the latest cover for Josh Pyke’s album Memories and Dust.

What can I say? It’s a beautifu piecel, and the cover doesn’t even encapsulate half of it. It’s only when you unfold the sleeve and view the meticulous hand drawn lyrics on the inside do you really appreciate the artistry that’s gone into it’s production. I could weep at the care and attention that’s gone into producing this.

So how does the album measure up to such an accomplished package? Well, lets just say to begin with, that Josh Pyke had been served exceedingly well with this presentation of his debut album.

What can I say about Josh Pyke’s music? As an earnest young man with an acoustic guitar, he’s never going to be lacking for competition in the market. My exposure to him initially was through the excellent first single ‘Middle of the Hill’, nothing else on the album really comes close to the urgency and undercurrent of personal melancholy portrayed in this song, which is a shame – I was expecting more quirk, like the cover – while the rest of the album’s songs seem to follow a more breezy ‘Jack Johnson vibe – good for those who likes that sort of stuff, and it certainly has an audience.

The cover art was created by James Hancock, and he’s only 29 as well (talented and much younger than me, usually a potent mix to raise my ire or my levels of depression. He obviously enjoys the music, his enthusiasm for it is evident, and he’s listened and searched out well among the lyrics to find appropriate graphic meataphors. There’s a recurring theme of ‘sewing and ‘mending” that plays out through the album, hence the motif of buttons and ‘twiney’ lines on the album art. It’s also confessional, as most solo artist albums are, so the use of hand drawn ‘folk type’ is appropriate. Printed on uncoated stock in subdued greys and browns, it’s hand made enough to portray an independent artist, but professionally enough produced to signify what I’m sure the label hopes will become a major artist. It really stands out on the racks next to your latest Beyonce release.

First albums are hard – especially when you receive a lot of expectation from an initial successful song. The artist wants to establish a unique identity. You can tell James Hancock the artist has put a lot of himself into this work, and by the album’s top ten success, received a lot of exposure for it – it may be an unfortunate ramification that this style of his is now going to be indelibly associated with Josh Pyke.

You can view some more of James Hancock’s great work at his website, including some more music design work for artist Darren Hanlon. Below I have included the great film clip for ‘Middle of The Hill’ featuring his artwork, it has hand claps in it as well! (Hand claps are the ‘new black’)