Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"What's an album cover?," asks a younger generation.

A highpoint of my recent trip to Chicago was spending time with my brother. Hanging out with him for a few hours on that chilly Chicago evening, I was in my element. He drove me around his town in his new Honda Fit (I envy!) and we talked about music, work and life in general.

At one point, we ventured into a record store and browsed and talked music for a good hour or so. I hadn't talked music like this since I hung out with some Tom Waits fans before his Ryman show last summer. It's what I miss most about my record store clerk days. I'd clock in and stock those longboxed CDs all night long. Every workplace conversation (with co-workers and customers alike) was the same wonderful topic: Music, and not limited to any one genre; oh, how I learned and taught so much back then.

My brother and I, driving around along Lake Shore Drive, found ourselves discussing the (ever increasing?) demise of album cover art. I remember well my dad showing me Steely Dan album covers and Yes album covers when I was so young. To think that a Roger Dean won't have the medium of music to showcase his artistic talents seems a shame to me. I even remember holding my first album (ELO's Greatest Hits) and studying its very simple cover (a gold medal as I recall) and appreciating it as a part of the cool experience of what I was hearing on my turntable.

"Paradise Theater" by Styx was another one of those that I spent hours taking in as something very important. There on the front was that Paradise Theater in its heyday, all lights shining brightly and crowds of people arriving for the "Gala Premiere" as its marquee indicated with such luminosity. Flip to the back cover and a different image of the same theater some years later was pictured in its sad demise. With windows broken and litter on the empty street before it, the marquee now informed any potential passersby that it was "Temporarily Closed."

The stories weren't just in the songs; they were on the album covers as well. Now, the story is not that album covers seem to be less and less important in this digital age, but that there is a whole generation of music buyers who don't understand why anyone would care about its demise. It's about the music, right? What does a picture have to do with whether or not a song (or collection of songs) is any good? The thing is, I guess there is a good point in that. It's time for me to take my spot on the old fogey soapbox and rant about how the present is not as good as the past, at least as far as album covers are concerned.

Here I am with my iPod. It's a Mini so there is no picture screen. I don't even get the tiny jpeg image to squint at. I could have more space for more artists on it, but along the same lines of my old-school ways, I only put entire albums on it. Even if I only really like a few songs from an album, I put the whole thing on there because I feel that the artists worked too hard on their albums to only have a song or two remembered. But that's another rant for another day.

My brother and I were of the opinion that there was dwindling hope for the continued appreciation of the album cover. (Don't get us started on liner notes!) Today, however, I came across an article stating otherwise in Wired magazine. The author writes about designers doing their part to keep the covers cool and relevant with Flash Lite. Here's the link: Designers Work to Rescue a Dying Art Form -- the Album Cover

(I recommend reading this while eating barbecue at Mothership BBQ in Nashville. All cool restaurateurs should decorate their walls with old album covers like this guy.)


Kat Coble said...

That Paradise Theatre Album Cover was one of my favourites. I know people hate Styx now, but they were such a formative band for me, and that album was a favourite.

Some bands and artists are still occasionally doing great cover art, but I think it's becoming ghetto-ised to the prog rock domain. Everyone else seems content with artless covers.

So who do we blame? Ironically I'm partially convinced that some of the fault lies with Pink Floyd. Most of the truly artful album covers came out of Prog Rock (you mentioned Yes). But when Floyd put out the minimalist cover on The Wall I think that did it for the future of cover art. Everyone went minimalist, then the albums got smaller, now the albums are slowly going away.

Ironically now that we have comp-gen graphics, some of the best cover art EVER can be created easily.

chez béz said...

That's an interesting point about Pink Floyd. I'll have to think on that.

I agree with you on the minimalist style of The Wall, but then The Beatles had their White Album, too.

I put the blame solely on the transition from record albums to CDs to today's digital media.

Of course, your last point is dead on. And that is what the article I linked to talks about. Flash Lite (or whomever gets the partnership with iTunes) will certainly bring the artwork and liner notes to our screens in a very interesting and cool way. I can't wait to see what the next five years bring.

Anonymous said...

test anon

Kate O' said...

Whole albums instead of individual songs on your iPod? Man, you are an old soul. ;-) On that front, I guess I'm more cynical about it -- in so many cases (in these post-AOR days) many of the songs are album filler anyway, so I don't feel like they do deserve that longevity.

But on the art front, yeah, I think the answer is in reinventing the relationship of visual art to music. In the AOR heyday when most of those legendary album covers were made, there was no MTV, no concept of the music video as a fuller experience of the song, no artist web site or MySpace page with clever visuals to help fill out the sensory experience of music appreciation. Cover art may be increasingly endangered, but visual art's relationship to music is long-standing and deep and will find a way to survive.