Friday, October 30, 2009

'KALA' - M.I.A.

Introducing M.I.A.’s second studio album Kala (2007) is a difficult task. Springing off her groundbreaking debut release Arular, M.I.A. took what we know as sound and rhythm and brought it up to another level.

The cover art for Kala is almost as groundbreaking. In an age of stream lines, Adobe CS4 applications and Cinematic Mac Desktops, it is eye-opening—not to mention refreshing—to see a graphic design such as this at its rawest.

From pixilated text to the x-rayed images, Kala looks more like a computer virus than an album cover. Lime green, blue and zebra-striped triangles line the background while repetitive images of M.I.A. herself punch forward.

The jacket, which was designed by M.I.A. personally, also contains graphic work by artists Cassette Playa (Carrie Mundane) and Steve Loveridge.

With tracks like radio smash “Paper Planes” and “Boyz,” it’s no wonder why M.I.A. would choose the low-res route for her album. The music is as raw and glitchy (yes, I made that word up) as the arrows and stripes running up the side.

The LP’s heavy political references also play a part on the cover’s appearance. The main portrait in the center has the words “Fight on! Fight on! Fight on!” repeated around the edge of the circle.

Although she has received some flack from industry folks for her creative decisions, M.I.A. holds strong to her grass-roots design aesthetics. It’s not a route many rising musicians would choose. She shows, through both her music and her art on Kala, that she’s not losing her identity any time soon, the same identity that got her there in the first place.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blonde Redhead - '23'

Before I even listened to Blonde Redhead’s seventh studio LP 23 (2007), I had already seen its artwork all over the web, from small-town Tumblrs to big city music magazine sites. In fact, I saw the jacket to 23 before I knew it was even a Blonde Redhead album.

Because album artwork in itself is such an equipped form of visual expression, we often develop our own preconceived notions about the music before we even hit “play” on our iPods. (See Britney Spears’ candy-sealed, Photoshop awarded Circus or even M.I.A’s pixilated computer glitch Kala).

When I first saw the cover art, I was instantly drawn to its kinky yet strikingly simple design. When I gave the record a first full run through, I understood the connections between the tracks and the four-legged tennis player on the front.

The album art for 23 was actually adapted from an earlier work by artist Adam Gross titled “The Tragedy.” In its original version, our quad-legged woman swims in a background of polka dots. And while both her pose and the tennis racquet remain the same in both versions, on the album cover her blue patterned dress shifts to a shade of beige and the ice cream cone in her left hand mysteriously disappears.

My only guess as to why Gross made such edits was to present a much simpler work. It would be one that would complement the songs — as well as Blonde Redhead’s overall style — a tad better.

Another bit noticeably different between the two works is the varying mediums on which they are presented. After some investigating, I found that Gross’ work routinely appears sharp and clean. The cover of 23, though, isn’t as crisp. Upon closer inspection, it even seems to be almost painted on canvas. Her face and body lines are blurred, and the image as a whole takes on a softer, more dazed identity.

When you listen to 23, you hear this same sort of sentiment. Tracks like “Dr. Strangeluv” and “23” are clouded and spacey while at the same time simplistic and fresh. The album’s experimental sound pushes further in songs “Heroine” and “Top Ranking.”

Blonde Redhead’s zany, offbeat sound and personality make the cover of 23 a perfect image for not just the album itself but for the band as well. Intentional or not, the band has done something smart— branding an identity for itself and for its album. Even if you’ve never heard a Blonde Redhead song in your life, you still may have seen that four-legged woman poised in a sea of blue. And while your ears may have failed you, at least you have your eyes to fall back on.

"The Tragedy" by Adam Gross
Photo source:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


It’s not hard to figure out why every band and musician strives for some kind of commercial achievement. This success equals money, fame and appreciation. But sometimes the hand that feeds you can also be the one that smacks you in the head with a blunt object over and over again until you bleed and die. I’m not talking about frivolous sex, excessive greed, stalkers or cocaine. I’m talking about car commercials, bad sitcoms and the movie Holes.

1999 was Moby’s year. His fifth studio album, Play—the audio bible of post-90’s advertising campaigns—put the experimental DJ on the commercial map. It was a feat few before him had accomplished.

Moby is considered one of the most influential electronica music figures of the 90’s, but it was Play, unfortunately, that also stumped Moby’s growth and recognition in the mainstream media since 1999. (This is arguably if you want to consider the adequate sales of Moby's 2002 release 18.)

I’m not trying to diss or hint at any displeasure in Play or Moby’s talent at all. I’m a huge Moby fan. I about cried when I heard my editor Jill passed him in Greenwich Village this summer carrying two Starbucks lattes in his hands. And the fact that Play is still the #1 selling electronic album of all time an entire decade after its initial released is indication enough that it’s nothing less than iconic.

It appears that the cover art for Play is just as iconic as the album itself. It’s refreshingly simple and raw—in true Moby fashion—while at the same time possessing a sense of sophistication and interest that leaves the listener (and viewer) curious.

The flush-left and flush-right alignments on the cover of Play are choppy and break the safe, traditional design rules of a centered, flowing layout.

Even the photographic content is awkward and unrefined, from Moby’s own disgusted facial expression and hairy chest to the photo assistant’s exposed arm and light meter. The photo’s unpolished harsh flash gives the objects a hard, unflattering shadow and light glare (see: Moby’s shining bald head).

The two splashes of red in the album’s title text and a cleverly placed “play” glyph tie the layout together in its own charming, loose-knotted form.

When you listen to Play, you may come to understand the design direction of the album art a little better. Every song on that album is so raw. Bluntly cut blues sample tracks are re-sewn together with streamlined house beats to create one cohesive masterpiece. That same patchwork of old and new transferred over to the cover of Play. It is simultaneously sleek and archaic, refined while awkward, recognizable while mysterious all at the same time.