Minimalist Alternate Cover Art

I’m a compulsive tinkerer, which means that my projects tend to go through a lot of permutations, and I sometimes perseverate on something when wiser folks would just let it go. Which is what happened with the cover art I created for the trio of albums in the series Another Place.

The final designs had a distinctly retro feel . In an era of increasingly atomized music, sold by the individual track, I miss the heyday of the album–not just sonically, but also conceptually and structurally.

As Howard Goodall has argued fairly cogently, in the period leading up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but in particular after it dropped, the album became something far greater than a mere collection of recorded songs that more or less reproduced the sound of a band playing a concert.

Increasingly, the studio itself became the instrument, with songs composed of sounds and effects that were often impossible to recreate live. And the album, rather than the single, became the musical unit, with songs thematically connected across the span of the whole album.

The albums of Another Place revisit this approach, from their conceptual framework, to the compositions themselves, to the design. For instance, each one has a theme related to place:

  • A City is a Sound deals with the the city, and in particular the great American cities of the 1970s. These are places I got to know intimately–the smells of them and the feeling of their surfaces–as I walked around them, hitchhiking the length and breadth of North America for months on end.
  • Alone in a Big Place is meant to capture the experience of being alone in a desert, or on the sea, or on an island, or in a deserted building–or any other place where there is no one else around. Sometimes even in a crowd.
  • Out of Place is intended to convey the feeling that comes with being somewhere you usually aren’t. There’s a different perspective that comes with that situation, and often it’s surprisingly pleasant or instructive.

The design of the three albums was meant to have a vintage feel as well, with the top banner and its graphic.

All covers

To get completely into the spirit of things, I did some mockups of gatefold covers, a physical design that became popular just around that time.  These were never going to be used to house vinyl albums, but creating them put me in the right mood as I was writing the music. Here’s one for A City is a Sound.

Gatefold mockup for A City is a Sound.

Gatefold mockup for A City is a Sound.

And here’s one for Alone in a Big Place.

Gatefold mockup for Alone in a Big Place.

Gatefold mockup for Alone in a Big Place.

But after spending a lot of time creating designs that were meant to evoke the albums of the 1970s, I found that I wanted a palate cleanser. Something slicker. Something that was extreme in the opposite direction.

Just as the simplicity, and often minimalism, of punk and new wave followed the baroque richness of 1970s rock, I wanted something other. So I created an alternate cover for each of the three albums, spare and clean and graphic.

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Creating this simple as these seems like it should be easy, but in fact it took about as much planning as the 70s covers, though the execution was less time consuming. I wanted each cover to contain the least possible information that would still convey a sense of what the album was about.

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Coming up with the right avatar for the theme of each album, without letting it get too detailed or complex, took some doing.

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So here they are.

They scratched the itch they were meant to satisfy, even if they have no practical reason to exist. If you own one of these albums and prefer the minimalist design to the original, or just want some variety, feel free to download them.

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Album Art Outtakes, “A City is a Sound”

When I created the album art for “A City is a Sound,” I used images from the Documerica Project, in which the U.S. government engaged a number of very creative photographers–many of whom went on to fame and acclaim–to document environmental issues.

The photographers took a very broad view of their mandate, in fact creating a portrait of the United States during a few short years in the 1970s–the exact period that was the subject of “A City is a Sound.”

"Two Girls Smoking Pot During an Outing in Cedar Woods near Leakey, Texas" (1973) by Marc St. Gil.

“Two Girls Smoking Pot During an Outing in Cedar Woods near Leakey, Texas” (1973) by Marc St. Gil. I applied curves because it was dark, and tweaked the colors, which  were faded. Done in two layers (foreground women, and background), as well as detailing two smaller elements (the top worn by the woman on the left and the strap around the neck of the woman on the right).

There were so many impressive, evocative images that there were many I loved that, for one reason or another, weren’t right for my particular project. That said, I couldn’t resist refreshing some of these outtakes with the same kinds of techniques I used for the album art: brightening dark images, reinvigorating faded color, and, very occasionally, reframing an image if it wasn’t level.

"Puerto Rican boys playing softball in Brooklyn's Hiland Park" (1974) by Danny Lyon.

“Puerto Rican boys playing softball in Brooklyn’s Hiland Park” (1974) by the great Danny Lyon. I applied curves and tweaked the colors.

 

The pairs of images on this page give you the before and after versions of a few of these images. I’ll post more another time.

"Broadway Local" (1973) by Erik Calonius.

“Broadway Local” (1973) by Erik Calonius. I brightened it and adjusted the colors.

 

 

 

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Creating Album Art for “Out of Place”

When I created the album art for Out of Place, the third album in the series Another Place, I wanted a visual counterpart to the theme that ran through the music: that finding yourself in a new, strange environment can be disorienting, but that can be a good thing, allowing you to escape old ruts you’d gotten into and letting you see things from a new angle.

Image Pair 01

I was looking for images the were reminiscent of travel snapshots, but that often involved odd juxtapositions, and that encompassed possibilities that were sometimes inviting and sometimes uncomfortable.

Image Pair 02

I also wanted them to combine the everyday feeling of family photos taken on holiday with a sense of the extraordinary, the dreamlike. The first factor led me to frame the images like old-time Polaroids, while the second guided the selection of images and the way I tweaked their framing, color, contrast, and other elements, to give them the kind of surreal edge that can come when you’ve been driving just a little too long on a hot desert road.

Image Pair 03

Out of Place is available on my Bandcamp page, as are my other three albums.

 

 

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Out of Place

Out of Place is the third album in the trilogy Another Place. All three albums (along with the first in another set) were released on Halloween 2017.

Each album in Another Place with a theme related to location: A City is a Sound, Alone in a Big Place, and Out of Place.

Here’s the idea behind Out of Place:

Sometimes finding yourself unexpectedly in a strange, new place can be oddly welcoming. This album deals with that experience, from a woman who’s chosen to live her life in one sterile airport hotel after another, to a woman who wakes from a blackout in the middle of a desert, to a woman and man who fall in love at first sight at the scene of a multiple murder.

Includes a 49-page illustrated digital booklet, with short fiction to accompany each track. The booklet comes in two versions, one hi-res for use on computers, and the other optimized for portable devices.

Here’s a sample track called “The Nouveau Baroque”:

 

The digital booklet for Out of Place is extensive. Each track gets a title page featuring an evocative photograph, followed by a piece of short fiction, ten in all. Here are a few of the images from the booklet, along with one of the stories.

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Here’s one of the pieces of short fiction, followed by a couple more images.

F3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09AF3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09BF3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09CF3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09DF3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09EF3 AP 03 OOP book story only CORRECT SIZED PDF 09F

And a couple of final images.

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AP 03 OOP Booklet PDF L

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Upcoming Album: Avant

My next album, Avant, will be released sometime this year.

The album is themed around avant garde artists, especially those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly dadaists and surrealists. The idea, though, is to explore beyond the traditional lineup of famous names to artists–mostly women and people of color–who are often neglected. So while Tzara and Duchamp and Dali will be there, so will Hannah Höch, Simone Yoyotte, and Zhao Xhou.

Musically, a project like this could fall into a kind of romantic nostalgia for a bygone time, but I’m staying away period sounds for the most part. Instead of portraying the era when the artists lived, what I want to do is evoke the energy with which they invented a new, modern world as they made their art–energy that still leaps out at you from the page or the canvas, from the plastic object or the built structure.

As much as I’m having fun writing the music, I’m enjoying the research at least as much. There are so many incredible artists whose work I either haven’t seen before, or have only experienced in a limited way–details to follow.

The current draft cover art is below.

AVANT cover

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A City is a Sound: The Video

The title track from A City is a Sound now has a video, which can be viewed on Youtube or on Vimeo.

 

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Creating Album Art for “A City is a Sound”

When I created the album art for A City is a Sound, I wanted to do the same thing visually that I was trying to do musically in the tracks: evoke the spirit of the great American cities of the 1970s, but with an updated aesthetic. That meant using images from the era, but giving them a slightly more modern look.

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Original image by Erik Calonius on the left, my version on the right with adjustments to color and corrections of perspective.

There was another reason I wasn’t going to use pristine images from the 1970s.

My source for images was the Documerica project, a program sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency. About seventy photographers, some of whom went on to great fame, were instructed to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern” from about 1972 to 1977. They interpreted that mandate very broadly, taking pictures of a wide range of things, from small towns, to natural beauty, to my particular favorite: big cities.

Detail from the image above.

Detail from the image above.

Many of the Documerica images are more than mere documents–they’re great art. But the color in a lot of the photographs isn’t up to par, possibly because the images have degraded over time. The ones I picked were gorgeous, but I wasn’t going to use them as they were.

Original image by Danny Lyon, left, and my altered version, right.

Original image by Danny Lyon, left, and my altered version, right. I’ve altered the color, made the horizon horizontal, and dispensed with that goddamn pole.

So I tried to restore their original vitality–or at least, what I imagined their original vitality might have been like.

A detail from the image above.

A detail from the image above.

In some cases, after trying to make the image more vivid, I went further, adding new elements to help integrate it into my own project. I did this, for instance, with the image of a young girl standing in front of an abandoned building, below.

Landscape

Another original image by Danny Lyon on the left, and my altered version on the right.

Landscape

Finally, my version with artifcat added (the yellow band) and the words ” A City is a Sound” superimposed.

Here’s an image by Wil Blanche where, again, I went beyond mere restoration.

Image by Wil Blanche of construction on the Battery Park development across From the World Trade Buildings on the Hudson River, 1973.

Image by Wil Blanche of construction on the Battery Park development across From the World Trade Buildings on the Hudson River, 1973.

The same image by Blanche with text added.

The same image by Blanche with text added.

Note: All of the Documerica images I used are in the public domain.

A City is a Sound, and my other albums, are available on my Bandcamp page.

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