Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How to Chose an Album Cover, Part 1 of 2

While we're all well versed in that worn-thin aphorism "Don't judge a book by its cover," when you're actually choosing a cover, that maxim goes right out the window. You begin inflate every mundane detail to risible proportions and find yourself saying things like "I'm not sure this album is that orange" or "Is that font too emo-core?" It can be maddening. Because, really, when you get right down to it, any album or book is, in some small way, judged by its cover. It's superficial, but it's natural.

Thankfully, Birdmonster was born after thousands of album covers have come and gone, allowing us to parse through the genius of decades past. A great album cover is simultaneously iconic and evocative, a representation of the work and a work in and of itself. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon cover is a perfect example, but then again, so is any Iron Maiden cover, with Maiden's mascot, "Eddie" the avuncular zombie adorning each and every one. So without further ado, we look back fondly on some of our favorites, in hopes that they, in their unending wisdom, will inform an important decision.

1- The Sex Appeal Route

The phenomenal success of Herb Alpert's well-known and oft-parodied "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" in 1965, coupled with the loosening of Puritanical mores, paved the way for covers that titillated, sexified, and otherwise made your grandmother uncomfortable. In fact, Alpert's image so captivated his audience that in concert, he'd often joke "I'm sorry, we can't play the cover," a sentence which surely disappointed his fan base, which was largely made up of dairy fetishists. Other artists would try to emulate this tawdry, "sex sells," philosophy, to varying degrees of success:


Mega Sexy!

SuperHyperUltraMega Sexy!

...or "Put your pants on," "put a shirt on," and "Please say you have your pants on," respectively. Sex Appeal is a tricky area to be sure. And you know what they say: "Just because you think crapping while holding your shoe is erotic doesn't mean I didn't just lower my head into the garbage disposal."

2- The Elaborate Outfits Route

Sure, not everyone's sexy. Ronnie James Dio, for example, is probably a goblin. That doesn't mean he can't bellow operatically about Rainbows in the Dark over some crunchy-ass metal: it just means you can't have him bare chested and svelte on an album cover. Instead of Sex Appeal, what you want to have is "a look." Here, think "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Or the Ramones. Or even Stryper. The important thing is consistency, a sense of mystery, an iconic representation, via fashion, of the sounds found within. Visually:

The family as table cloth

In which we learn Zeus was black

Can you tell this came out in 1986?

The problem here lies with fickle Fashion herself. Growing up, I was certain that my Hypercolor shirt and Airwalk jam shorts were the absolute apex of awesomeitude. As it turned out, I was mistaken. We've all gone through our closets and thought to ourselves "I used to wear that?" before taking it to a Salvation Army and having them say "I'm sorry sir. We're trying to help these people, not make them the butt of unending suffering." A route best avoided.

3- The Phenomenal Hubris Route

A few years back, Talib Kweli released an album titled, simply, "Quality." In a way, that's simultaneously a bold claim and a backhanded slap at all his contemporaries. As it turns out, the album was fantastic and more than lived up to its name and Kweli's cover was actually a restrained, thoughtful image of himself, an understated counterpoint to a vaguely boastful title. Of course, this is the exception to the rule:

I've deleted fifty jokes here.* Let's just let the unbridled arrogance of a NELSON MILLENNIUM COLLECTION speak for itself

Apparently, this "Handel" fellow thinks quite highly of himself

Or, "I'm rich; kiss my ring."

Like when Mohammed Ali said, "It ain't bragging if it's true," if it ain't true, it's insufferable. Covers that convey a sense of entitlement, a brash money-grab, or celestial parentage tend to rub the casual record buyer the wrong way. Let's put it this way: did Woodie Guthrie ever make an album called "This is My Hot Shit" with a picture of him riding in a baby blue Thunderbird, blanketed by bikinied hos? Exactly.

Part two tomorrow.

UPDATE: A hearty, hearty thank you to esteemed commenter ncbutters, who showed me the error of my ways by providing us with the following:

Did I mention I love the internet yet?

* For the record, the Nelson Millenium Collection narrowly edged out "Snow's Greatest Hits." And now you have "Informer" in your head. I am sorry.


ncbutters said...

On the contrary!

birdmonster said...

ncbutters: My. God. You are a fabulous specimen of humanity. I had to update the blog posthaste. Indeed, I done did that already.

ncbutters said...

dear mr. birdmonster...i was delighted to see that you posted the actual photo in the blog, i spent prolly 30 mins. figuring out that you can't embed an image in blogger comments.

btw this is the brain child of your pals john(the artist) and brett(the one saying "you should totally make that album cover and post it").

birdmonster said...

ncbutters: I'm honestly still in awe of the awesomeness. I replaced my computer backdrop, in fact, from Millie Jackson taking a dump to Woody Guthrie getting his T-Bird waxed. Life is good.

So to John (artist, wiffleballer of the stars) and Brett (guy I screamed "Gibby" at while he was making me feel fat and lazy): I salute you. Though, less so Brett, since all he did was hector you into action

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