Album Design - Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha
Andrew Bird is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist who dazzles fans by playing everything from the guitar to the violin to the glockenspiel. His albums each have their own unique sound, yet he is also known to rework his songs, expanding on songs from previous albums and constantly creating new versions of songs during live performances.
I’m personally most drawn to Bird’s 2007 album Armchair Apocrypha, an album that ventured away from acoustic and features an electric guitar and strings. The resulting sound is one that always reminds me of the eerie, hushed atmosphere of winter so it’s no surprise that I always find myself listening to the album when the temperature drops. I’m also always drawn to the cover art of this album, which features the reposeful image of an exotic bird turned away from its viewers.
The cover art was created by photographer Lynne Roberts- Goodwin and is just a small sampling of the vibrant, environmentally-centered projects that the artist takes part in. The native Australian’s work focuses on a deep concern for nature and her “photographic artworks relating to endangered species and their environments… transcend geographic representation.”
The image used for Armchair Apocrypha is taken from Goodwin’s 2003 series Bad Birds. The series features portraits of deceased birds from the Australian Museum in Sydney’s collection, photographed in a museum diorama setting but without a traditionally painted backdrop. By placing each bird away from the camera, Goodwin felt that it would give viewers less conventional clues as to each bird’s identity—requiring us to focus on each bird’s plumage rather than a face.
Not surprisingly, just as the series title suggests, Goodwin also faced each bird away from the viewer to suggest that she or the birds were purposely withholding essential information. We are left to imagine that these animals have been told to face the wall as a punishment or that they are so shy that they refuse to meet the camera’s gaze.
Bad Bird #1, 2003, C-type photograph, 1.5m x 1.2m, Edition of 10, ©lynneroberts-goodwin
Bad Bird #12, 2003, C-type photograph, 1.5m x 1.2m, Edition of 10, ©lynneroberts-goodwin
Album Design - Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now
Formed in the late 90s, British group Antony and the Johnsons has developed a loyal fan base of listeners who are drawn to the the group’s moving lyrics and the expressive vibrato of lead singer Antony Hegarty.
The group has made four studio albums and an assortment of EPs, but their most lauded album is 2005’s I Am a Bird Now. The album’s content is attention-grabbing in itself, addressing issues of gender displacement, violence, and abandonment, but I Am a Bird Now also catches the attention of others through its tragically beautiful cover photo of Andy Warhol Superstar Candy Darling.
The album’s cover was taken from the famous photograph of American photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar was known for his black and white portraits and worked with magazine and fashion industries before passing away in 1987 from complications with AIDS. He shot the above photo of Darling in 1974 as the transexual woman lay on her deathbed, struggling with lymphoma.
Since being released, I Am a Bird Now has gone Gold in three European countries. The album received the highly regarded Mercury Prize and after winning the prize in September 2005, it shot up the UK album charts from #135 to #16 in one week, the biggest jump in the history of Mercury. I Am a Bird Now features guest vocals by Lou Reed, Boy George, and Rufus Wainwright, and garnered unanimously positive reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Q, and Allmusic.
Jay-Z Creates Art at the Pace Gallery
While music videos serve as the ultimate example of performance art within the music industry, we rarely get the chance to see that form of art created directly within a museum setting in front of dozens of patrons.
Jay-Z recently stepped up to the task though and created just that to highlight the second single from his twelfth studio album Magna Carta… Holy Grail.
The music video for “Picasso Baby” was recently shot at the Pace Gallery and features the artist performing to patrons as they come up one by one and individually take a seat in front of his stage. Some patrons dance with joy as he raps to them while other gaze at him solemnly and still others even break Jay-Z’s flow with their unique costumes and personas. Individuals like Judd Apatow, Adam Driver, Wale, and artist Marina Abramovic even make an appearance.
Directed by Mark Romanek (Fiona Apple’s Criminal, Nine Inch Nail’s Closer, MJ & Janet Jackson’s Scream, and Jay-Z’s 99 Problems), the performance art was inspired by Abramovic’s work, most notably Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present.” In 2010, Abramovic was featured in a retrospective at the MoMA and sat on one side of a table while patrons, one by one, sat on the opposite side and were invited to gaze into the artist’s eyes for one minute.
The music video premiered on HBO on August 2nd and has since gained over a million views on Youtube.
Album Design - They Might Be Giants’ Nanobots
Brooklyn-based alternative rock band They Might Be Giants has been around for more than thirty years now and has found success topping modern rock charts, writing theme songs for television shows, and even creating children’s music.
Earlier this spring, the band released their 16th studio album, Nanobots. The album has garnered largely positive reviews despite it’s unconventional content of 25 songs totaling less than 45 minutes in length, and features four works of art, including a striking 19th century portrait of a young girl in blue combined with a contemporary collage that tears through the album’s name.
The painting of the young girl was originally created by French neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Titled Princesse Albert de Broglie, the mid-19th century painting is found today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ingres - Princesse de Broglie (1851-1853)
Ingres - Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806)
Ingres disagreed with the stylistic qualities of artists who favored visible brush strokes and the shifting effects of color and natural light. Instead, he would sometimes spend years perfecting a single painting in order to tediously create a softness and beautiful realism.
Contemporary artist Sam Weber took Ingres’ delicate portrait of a young girl and transformed it as part of his recent collage series from photos of antiques and old master paintings. His work transforms the painting, giving it a more dark and futuristic quality that leaves the viewer to believe that they are staring at human innards or the robotic wiring of the subject at hand.
Sam Weber - Collage Series (2011)
Mykki Blanco Collaborates with MOCA
After receiving their largest endowment in the museum’s 34 year history (more than a whopping $60 million to anyone that is curious), The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has been actively taking part in more artist commissions than usual over the past few months.
One such artist who was recently commissioned by MOCA was Mykki Blanco, otherwise known as Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.. Quattlebaum is sometimes referred to as a performance artist, other times referred to as a rap artist, and still other times referred to as a poet, cross dresser, or GLBTQ activist. Quattlebaum spent time studying at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons before dropping out and has stated that he uses hip-hop as a performance medium.
MOCA had Quattlebaum make a video and the result is “The Initiation,” a sinister, dysotopian, fight club of a music video in which Mykki Blanco prowls a seemingly abandoned city with two faces on her head and eventually joins a cage fight of similar looking individuals.
The video was directed by Ninian Doff and serves as the second single for Mykki Blanco’s album Betty Rubble: The Initiation EP.
Watercolor + Stop-Motion Animation = Joy
I’m a longtime fan of Iron and Wine. Sam Beam, who happens to live here in Austin, creates beautifully delicate songs hushed by mostly soft acoustics. Although he’s an incredibly talented musician though, the singer/songwriter actually began his career in film and directed a number of his own music videos. Check out “Naked as We Came" and "Southern Anthem" for the wonderful evidence.
For his latest single “Joy,” Beam decided to veer from his own directorial work and sought out artist/animator Hayley Morris. Morris is known for combining mediums such as drawing, painting, sculpture, textiles, lighting, and sound and using traditional stop-motion animation to tell stories that contain a layering of experimental visuals.
In order to make the music video for “Joy,” Morris projected hand-painted water color animations into stop-motion landscapes. The project took her more than two months and every item featured in the music video was handmade from found objects, clay, and paper.
Morris explains that the meaning behind the music video is based on the woman that Sam Beam is singing about. “Through his eyes we see how [she] changes his world and fills it with color.” She adds, “You catch glimpses of her within the different plants, rocks, trees, and objects that occupy his world. My goal was to have the viewer feel the effect on him through bursts of color, growth, and transformation.”
Album Design - Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz
When I think about some of my favorite album cover designs that have been released over the last few years, one album that immediately comes to mind is the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz (2009). The album cover features a striking, action photograph of lead singer Karen O crushing a raw egg in her hand.
As the music blog Sleevage explains, “[The] cover appears destined for iconic status because it conveys so much with so little. The aggressive fury in the fist plays in stark contrast to the sensuous colors and textures of the egg.”
Considering the memorable, minimalist design of It’s Blitz, it’s no surprise to learn that the album cover’s photograph was taken by well-known Swiss contemporary artist Urs Fischer.
Fischer is predominantly known for creating art installations that incorporate unconventional objects found in our everyday surroundings. Whether using fruit, candles, chairs, or bread, Fischer has said that he enjoys placing the spotlight on imagery commonly found within today’s consumerism.
The artist is also known for creating installations that incorporate dramatic anti-art or Neo-Dada gestures. For example, he cut enormous holes out of the gallery walls for the 2006 Whitney Biennial and then drilled through the entire floor of a room in a West Village gallery.
The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s came upon Urs Fischer’s work after admiring the cover art for Services’ Eat Prey Love, which Fischer also photographed. It’s no surprise that a band whose front woman often encompasses an in-your-face musical persona would be magically paired with a contemporary artist of similar carriage to create an album design that still gets talked about today.
The Baroque Stylings of “Losing My Religion”
It’s hard to believe that this video is now over twenty years old, but R.E.M.’s music video for “Losing my Religion” still serves as a prime example of the ways that fine art movements can transform a song from an auditory experience to a visual one.
"Losing My Religion" was directed by Tarsem Singh, an Indian director whose filmography includes various music videos, The Cell, and most recently, Mirror Mirror. Singh wanted to create a melodramatic, dreamlike music video reflective of art from the Baroque period. In particular, he drew inspiration from Italian artist Caravaggio.
Caravaggio created paintings that featured realistic figures amidst sharp contrasts of light and dark through a practice known as “chiaroscuro.” He used live models, positioned in theatrical, dramatic settings, when developing his paintings and much of his artwork was seen as sacrilegious. A death warrant was even issued for Caravaggio by the Pope.
"Losing My Religion" was hugely successful during its release in 1991. The music video won six MTV Music Awards, including awards for Best Art Direction and Video of the Year.
The religious nature of the song’s lyrics, combined with religious figures like angels, sharp contrasts in lighting, and the expressive placement of figures mimic Caravaggio’s work so strongly that, at times, it’s almost as if we are staring at paintings which have briefly come to life within the confines of their frames.
Album Design - Buke and Gase’s General Dome
Buke and Gase are an inventive Brooklyn-based music duo who use handmade instruments to create an indie-rock sound all their own. Members Aron and Arone predominately play a buke (baritone ukulele) and a gase (hybrid of a guitar and a bass) while performing, hence the band’s name, and as a result, their music has a fresh, progressive sound that evokes a simultaneously played orchestra of assorted instruments.
With a duo as creative and inquistive as Buke and Gase, it’s no surprise that they put as much meaning into their album cover design as they did with the new tracks of their latest album, General Dome. Buke and Gase’s album artwork evokes a minimal yet playful combination of dynamic designs. As it turns out, Aron and Arone were inspired to create their album artwork after visiting a Sol LeWitt exhibiiton at the Dea:Beacon museum in Beacon, NY.
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1085 (1968/2003)
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #273 (1975)
LeWitt’s drawing series featured at Dea:Beacon were first created by LeWitt in the late 1960s. The series is composed of wall drawings divided into squares of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines and the animated path of the various lines form crisp geometric shapes.
Sol LeWitt often focused on the idea behind his artwork. In a similar fashion, Buke and Gase created a series of geometric and linear images for the cover of General Dome to serve as a symbolic alphabet. The designs are minimal yet vibrant and beg to be explored as if we were deciphering some sort of a newly discovered code- a true visual representation of Buke and Gase’s music.
Album Design - Brokeback’s Brokeback and the Black Rock
Brokeback is a side project of bassist Doug McCombs from the post-rock band Tortoise. Brokeback’s new album, Brokeback and the Black Rock, features a striking photograph as its cover art that strongly resembles the work of pop artist Ed Ruscha.
I’ve actually mentioned Ed Ruscha before in a post about the design for an album by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, but the old post focused on Ruscha’s silkscreens of dramatic angles and bold colors and the latest design more closely reflects Ruscha’s iconic, desolate photographs.
In 1963, Ruscha developed what is considered by many to be the first modern artist book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Just as the name suggests, the book displays photographs of twenty six gas stations taken along Route 66.
Ed Ruscha, Flying A, Kingman, Arizona, from Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962)
Ed Ruscha, Texaco, Vega, Texas, from Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962)
I’m such a fan of Ruscha’s photography. While the images initially seem stark and banal, they are representations of American wanderlust and show the expansiveness that lies before the everyday traveler.