the rolling stones

#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

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RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

How important is album artwork today?  Still important, I’d argue, though not as much as it was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  You can tell that artwork is still important, because every major artist produces “cover art” any time they release a single, even if there is no physical product for it to be applied to.  Artists will commission art or pose for expensive new pictures to accompany the new music.

Columbia Records kicked off the era of album artwork in 1938, a full decade before the birth of the LP.  Columbia’s art director Alex Steinweiss is generally credited with the introduction of packaging art.  Before him, 78’s used to come in plain sleeves with very little printing on them.  Some sleeves would have large holes in the middle, through which you could read the label on the record.  After the dawn of the LP, the rest of the record manufacturers in the world had caught up and were using artwork on their LPs in the 1950’s.  The standard size was 12 – 3/8”.

When you think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band today, you inevitably picture that incredible album artwork as well as the songs.  That cover, with its 57 different distinct figures pictured, became a high water mark.  They also included cardboard cutouts inside, a gimmick that Kiss were eager to copy and make their own.  Sgt. Pepper’s artwork cost 60 times more to create than the average album cover in 1967!  It took a band with the success of the Beatles to push the limits in this way.

The Rolling Stones included postcards in their Exile on Main Street (another unforgettable album cover), but they also brought album artwork into three dimensions.  Sticky Fingers featured a working metal zipper, with which you could open the jeans on the front cover, to reveal briefs inside.  It was a level of interactivity previously unseen.  The zipper tended to cause damage to the records and packaging in shipment, but pioneering is a process of trial and error!

Early 90's CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Early 90’s CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Perhaps Led Zeppelin took LP artwork to its end point, with 1979’s In Through the Out Door.  The record was concealed in a sealed, stamped paper bag that looked like a cheap bootleg, but inside would be one of six different album covers.  You would not know which you got until you tore it open.  The Grammy award winning packaging also included an inner sleeve that one could paint on, just by adding water!  If you wet a paintbrush (or anything, for that matter), you could dissolve paint embedded in it and colour it yourself.  Finding an original unpainted inner sleeve is the goal of a true collector.

Historically speaking, album artwork like this had several purposes.  The first and most obvious would be to identify the product inside (something Led Zeppelin messed with by not including their name on Led Zeppelin IV).  The second purpose was to attract the eye, in the crowded shelves of the record store.  It was noted by many that a brown cover just melted into the background.  Something striking would jump out, and be hard to miss in the racks.  Another job of the cover art was to tie together all the related marketing for the LP.  The artwork could appear in magazine ads, posters, and later on, in music videos.

The purpose of cover art that Kiss embraced was to give value for the money.  Not only did you get killer artwork with loud rock and roll inside, but you also got a cardboard Love Gun, or even masks you could cut out and wear.  Fans drooled over these extras.  For a while, any time Kiss put out an album, you knew that the packaging would be special.  For albums such as Destroyer and The Elder, they even used gatefold sleeves – an added, unnecessary expense for single LP packages.

Album artwork suffered in the 80’s and 90’s.  With cassettes and ultimately CDs replacing the 12.375” width of an album cover, the pictures were smaller and less striking.  You could not pack as much information onto a 4.75” CD sleeve.  Iron Maiden’s artist Derek Riggs was known for hiding secret messages and logos in his album covers, including a mischievous “Indiana Jones was here” and “Wot, no Guinness?” inside Powerslave.  These touches are lost on smaller CD covers.

There is no question that the majority of cover art suffered in the 90’s.  Some bands and labels still strove to give the buyer some extra value, but the canvas was now teeny tiny.  Tool are an example of a band who took advantage of the CD age.  Their AEnema CD had lenticular, “moving” cover art, thanks to a special jewel case that enabled 3D images.  You could even swap images by folding the booklet differently, and get a different moving scene.  Kiss copied this, less successfully, for Psycho-Circus in 1998.  Coloured plastic jewel cases were another way to get some attention on the CD racks.  Bands such as Alice in Chains and Collective Soul used coloured jewel cases for their self-titled albums in 1995, but these were fragile and prone to scratching.  The cardboard digipack was another method to enhance CD cover art, but they were not popular with everyone.  Some consumers complained that the covers wouldn’t fit properly into their CD towers, and would scratch up the discs if poorly designed.  And then of course, we had artists such as Garth Brooks who decided to milk the fans by releasing the same album with different cover art, encouraging them to “collect them all!”  His Double Live had no less than seven covers to collect.  That would come to well over $150 total for the collector who had to have each one.

LPs are currently having a second surge of popularity.  Will it last?  No.  Before you cry “heresy!”, remember that in today’s society, convenience is king.  That means portability.  Vinyl LPs are meant to be enjoyed at home.  The future will remain digital, although LPs will probably never die completely.  The advent of digital music has reduced the importance of cover art yet again.  You don’t need a cover, obviously, to enclose something that does not physically exist.  Yet, cover art is still being made.

Some have chosen to take cover art in the digital age to minimalist extremes.  U2’s Songs of Innocence was initially released digitally, with a very plain photo of a white LP sleeve with “U2” stamped on it.  Kanye West embraced minimalism on Yeesus, releasing the CD with no packaging to speak of at all.  A CD housed in a clear jewel case, sealed by a strip of orange tape, and a sticker with some credits – that’s all Yeesus gave us, surprising many by not going completely over the top with it.  It’s still an artistic statement, but is it the kind of art that a fan will embrace and cherish?

I feel that album artwork is currently in a state of flux.  LPs are having their moment again, and with them, lavish packaging that one can handle and enjoy.  On the other hand, simple digital pictures are all kids need today, to be attached to their mp3 files.  I hope that some enterprising, artistic individual, a modern day Alex Steinweiss, will innovate and bring back cover art in a lasting way.  I sure hope, because I do like cover artwork to accompany my music.

YEESUS

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REVIEW: Def Leppard – “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” (1992 CD single)

Part three in a series on singles from Def Leppard’s Adrenalize, including hard to find B-sides!

DEL LEP SINGLE_0005DEF LEPPARD – “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” (1992 Phonogram CD single)

On their last single, “Make Love Like a Man”, Def Leppard released their first acoustic recording in a song called “Two Steps Behind”.  This time, they went all-in.  Not content with a couple acoustic guitars, Joe called up some friends from Hothouse Flowers (Fiachna Ó Braonáin, Liam Ó Maonlaí, and  Peter O’Toole) and formed an octet* called the Acoustic Hippies from Hell!  As the Acoustic Hippies, they did three songs:  an unreleased Joe original called “From the Inside” and two covers.  The Flowers brought tin whistle, piano and mandolin to the table.

“From the Inside” is a haunting number, with Joe singing about addiction from the perspective of the drug.  “I’ll shoot through your veins, I’ll drive you insane.”  Joe first played it for a television program called Friday at the Dome.  Liam Ó Maonlaí and he played it together as an experiment in artists from two different fields colliding.  Joe liked the song enough to record it here with the Acoustic Hippies.  This song was re-released in 1993 on Retro-Active, but added the original count-in from the session.  It’s certainly a good song but not easy for some Leppard fans to appreciate.

The guys then jam on 7 1/2 minutes of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.  This is a highlight of the single, a fantastic version that deserves more attention. You might be surprised just how good this is. It sounds 100% live, with people calling out cues and hoots and hollers. Almost as good is Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. Softer and less rambunctious, it is haunting more like “From the Inside”.  Thankfully these two tracks were later reissued on the Adrenalize deluxe edition.

These three B-sides completely outshine the A-side, the putrid “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” from Adrenalize.  This annoying title is only slightly worse than the song itself, one of the most by-the-numbers ballads that Def Leppard have foisted upon the fans.  Of course it became a top 10 charting single in the US.

3.5/5 stars

* There are no drums but Rick Allen is credited for “acoustic inspiration”.

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Adrenalize singles:

Part 1:  “Let’s Get Rocked”
Part 2: “Make Love Like a Man”

Up next:  “Heaven Is”

REVIEW: Keel – The Right to Rock (1985)

IMG_20150613_084127KEEL – The Right to Rock (1985 A&M)

From the Gene Simmons Song Factory, heeeeere’s Keel!

Like many Gene Simmons productions, Keel’s The Right to Rock bears his name on a few writing credits.  The rest of the songs are basically reworkings of tracks from Keel’s first album Lay Down the Law.  That album, like Ron Keel’s debut with Steeler (featuring one Yngwie J. Malmsteen) were on Shrapnel.  For the A&M Records debut, they pulled out the big guns.  They got Gene Simmons in all his wig-ness, and put out a very corny but tremendously fun music video.

It is “America 1989”, and rock and roll is outlawed. “Those who are apprehended suffer severe consequences.”  Can our young teenage Keel lookalike get away from the rock police?  Quiet Riot did something similar with their “The Wild and the Young” video a year later. It’s corny fun.

The song too is corny fun. I guess it’s a classic now. It has that stock heavy metal riff that you need: something Motley Crue or the Scorpions would be comfortable with. It has that rebellious rock theme that was so prominent in the 80’s. It has a shoutalong chorus. “You got it! The Right to Rock!” Hey, I grew up in a Catholic school. I know what this is about. “Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life!” I had a teacher call me out on the first day of school for wearing a Judas Priest T-shirt. I could relate to this song in a big way when I was 13.

It should be noted that Gene Simmons, as a producer, is not known for his sonics. The Right to Rock sounds pretty good for the period, but the drums ring shallow and weak. There’s not much presence for the bass guitar, and the backing vocals are the typical rock mush. That’s what you get with Gene behind the console.

“Back to the City” has a good Priest-like chug to it. I think Keel were going for something middle of the road with their music, like Priest-meets-Scorps-meets-Crue-meets-Kiss. If so, this hit the mark. Ron’s vocals are overwrought but that’s his style. If you don’t like that kind of vocal, you won’t like Keel.

Kinda stinky is “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. You know, I still gotta give the guys credit. They have made this into a pretty fine pop metal song. If you didn’t know the song, you’d assume it’s an original, in the pop metal genre. So from that perspective, I think it’s kinda cool. Stinky and cool — like good gorgonzola.

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“Easier Said Than Done” was written by Simmons/Weissman, the same team responsible for much of the Animalize album. The lyrics even reference “Russian Roulette”, a song title Gene had been toying with for years. (A song called “Russian Roulette” was finally release on Sonic Boom.) So, guess who “Easier Said Than Done” sounds like? That’s right — it is a dead ringer for Simmons-style Kiss. And it’s actually a pretty good song. The problem is Ron’s Gene impression. I can’t help but chuckle at his dead-on Gene vocals. I dare you to refrain from a giggle yourself. Same deal with “So Many Girls, So Little Time”. Kiss fans will recognize that’s a line recycled from the Kiss song “Burn Bitch Burn”.

Onto side two, “Electric Love” is a Keel original, but you immediately notice that the song isn’t as immediate as the two previous Simmons tunes. “Speed Demon”, another original, sounds exactly as the title implies. Quality-wise, it’s only at “Priest outtake” level (Defenders of the Faith era). Then it’s back to Simmons outtakes, with “Get Down”, the weakest of the Simmons songs by a long shot. “You’re the Victim (I’m the Crime)” is a Gene-like title, but this too is a Keel tune. It’s in the same vein as “Speed Demon”, and the same level of quality.

It’s fun to revisit The Right To Rock periodically…but sparingly.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Stone Country – The Songs of the Rolling Stones (Various)

The sixth review from Mike and Aaron Go to Toronto…Again!  This CD was given to me by A himself.
This is also a SIMULTANEOUS REVIEW!  The far more Stones-knowledgeable Aaron has reviewed the same album today: take a look!

STONE COUNTRY – Country artists perform the songs of the Rolling Stones (1997 Beyond Music)

STONE COUNTRY_0005Country artists covering the Stones? Sure, why not?  You might be surprised by the common ground exhibited here on Stone Country.

You can’t mistake “Honky Tonky Woman” right from that opening cowbell.  Travis Tritt sounds natural performing this one, because it’s already so country.  I dig it.  Travis Tritt’s always been one of those country guys who I respected.  He didn’t seem like a sell-out to me.  And he’s never cut his hair either, so fuck yeah!  This is a very rocking country version, and it sounds very alive in the studio.  It has some serious thump too.

Tracy Lawrence on the other hand, I wrote off years ago, because if you hit a woman, you lose my respect.  However I gotta be honest — I dig his version of “Paint It, Black”.  I told Aaron a while ago, “I never need to hear another cover of that song,” but I was wrong.  I can add this one to my library without shame.  It’s cool how the exotic and country sides meet without conflict in this version, and there are cool solos (organ and guitar) to boot!

STONE COUNTRY_0003“Ruby Tuesday” by Deana Carter, on the other hand, doesn’t “rock” per se, but it’s “Ruby Tuesday” and it doesn’t suck!  It’s softer and has some twang in the vocal and fiddle, but the strings are still there pumping up the chorus.  Up next, “The Last Time” is transformed into a bar room country chug by The Tractors.  There’s plenty of cool  guitar playing to keep you satisfied, but this isn’t one of my favourite Stones tunes to begin with.

Rodney Crowell then takes a challenge upon himself with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.  What an iconic song, and inherently youthful and edgy.  He changes the guitar riff to a fiddle one, and holy shit!  It works!  This track smokes!  There’s even a sax solo.  How rock n’ roll!  High five, Rodney.

STONE COUNTRY_0002Sammy Kershaw has sold a lot of records over the years, but I truthfully don’t know if I’ve ever listened to him before.  He chose to cover the ballad “Angie”, a bold choice, since it relies so heavily on the voice.  The gamble paid off.  “Angie” does not stray far from the original, and it’s amazing how well Mick’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery works with a little twang in it.   Well done Mr. Kershaw, you have a great voice.  Respect!

Blackhawk transform “Wild Horses” into a fast bluegrass ramble.  I’m reminded of Blue Rodeo in a big way, who have plenty of songs that sound this way naturally.  I’m not too keen on the vocals, but there is some serious pickin’ going on here!  I don’t think I had ever heard Blackhawk before this.  I can say the same for Collin Raye: heard of him, never heard him.  Raye takes on “Brown Sugar” which has a great guitar sound.  This sounds like a good bar band’s take on the song, which is all you really need.  It’s punchy, and would work great just before a bar fight in a seedy strip club in some Bruce Willis cop movie.

I’m on record with “Beast of Burden” being one of my fave Stones tunes of all time.  It’s untouchable to me.  So Little Texas (out of Nashville!) have a lot to prove to me.  But shit, they managed to do it!  The song still has that swanky sway, punchy bass, and it does not suck, until the “pretty pretty girl” breakdown in the middle.  Other than that, it’s pretty good.  Then country veteran Nanci Griffith does “No Expectations”, which was originally a B-side, so kudos to her.  It was originally a slide guitar country song anyway, but Griffith takes it up in tempo and mood.  Just one comment:  what a voice!

Saving the biggest name for last, George Jones sings “Time Is on My Side”, not a Stones original but a song they did make famous.  This slow dance is perfectly suited to Jones’ balladeering.  I can picture in my mind the ladies in the audience swaying to the sound of Jones’ spoken word section.

Aaron reckons that he found this CD for no more than $2.  In that case I say money well spent!

3.5/5 stars

STONE COUNTRY_0004

Part 192: Mix One

MIX ONE

RECORD STORE TALES Part 192:  Mix One

Blank discs are so cheap, and musical tastes so fleeting today, that I wonder if anybody but me still has the first mix CD they ever burned?

I’m hoping some of you have, and I’m hoping to hear it about from you too.  My first disc was made in early 2001 when we got our first burner.  It was made for a very specific purpose.

At the store, there was an informal rule that if you were closing one day and opening the next, it was “OK” to borrow a movie overnight, watch and return it.  So if that was true for movies, why not a CD?  Why not a dozen?  A few nights after having the CD burner installed, I borrowed a bag full of discs and burned this compilation on a Maxell CD-R 650.  74 minutes!  Up to 16x certified!

I returned the discs the next day, all albums that I wanted one or two songs from, but not the whole album.  Many were soundtracks and tribute albums.  I ended up buying The Strokes’ album a few weeks later, an ill-advised purchase that yielded only two or three listens.  I don’t have that one anymore.  But I still have my mix CD with “Last Nite”!

The Robbie Williams + Queen track is taken from the soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale.  I shall maintain the anonymity of the store employee who had the crush on Heath Ledger and inundated us with this soundtrack.  The same disc also yielded “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone.

Track 3 is an industrial-rock hybrid tune called “Violent New Breed”.  I later purchased the Violent New Breed album by Shotgun Messiah.  Industrial rock fans will know that Messiah’s original bassist/singer was Tim Tim, aka Tim Sköld of KMFDM, Marilyn Manson, and his eponymous band.  I liked the title track enough to later buy the album and the prior one too.  Both were keepers.

I’ve been a Goo Goo Dolls fan for a while so I thought I would grab their INXS cover “Don’t Change” from an Ace Ventura soundtrack.  Their cover of “Bitch” came from the 1993 No Alternative compilation album.

Apparently I was on a Warrior Soul kick at that time as well.  Shame that there isn’t a great Warrior Soul compilation album that suits all my needs.  I bought and sold their studio albums.  As for Michael Jackson, I later decided to add a single disc compilation to my collection, offsetting my burning of “Billie Jean”.

This being a real odds n’ ends disc, it’s not a spellbinding listen today.  It’s fun to remind myself of some oddball tracks that I liked enough to burn but not enough to buy.  I’m also amused by the title Mix One, the first of many!  And I was even doing cover art back then, too.  On the cover is myself dressed up as the alien from Part 148: Navigate the Seas of the Sun!

2/5 stars!

NEXT TIME ON RECORD STORE TALES…

The return of the Dandy!

REVIEW: The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Thanks Aaron for hooking me up with this CD.

STONES 1

THE ROLLING STONES – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967 London/Decca)

It would be lazy for me to compare this album to contemporaries of the band. It would also be lazy to use the old outdated “psychedelic” adjective to describe this music. I can think of numerous other adjectives: challenging, rewarding, inventive, chaotic, grimy, majestic.

Andrew Loog Oldham had quit his post as the band’s producer and manager, leaving the Stones to their own devices.  It sounds as if they explored every possible indulgence (musically and otherwise).

Their Satanic Majesties Request takes some of the musical expeditions that The Rolling Stones had completed on Between The Buttons (think “Ruby Tuesday”), and turns that on its head. Mix in ample supplies of chemicals and a total fearlessness, and a belief that what they were doing was total brilliance, and what you get is Their Satanic Majesties Request. This album surely must have convinced parents that Satan himself was possessing the hi-fi.

Light on guitar, rhythm and blues, Their Satanic Majesties Request is still among the best Stones albums if you can penetrate its purple smokey haze. Doing so will reveal an album constructed in layers, and peeling back these layers will release melodies and instrumentation that will keep you enthralled for years, as you keep coming back to this album. Is that Mick asking, “Where’s that joint?”

I’m fond of the opening track, “Sing This All Together”, which sounds (at times) like a cross between the Beatles and a James Bond theme.  I’m sure some fans were wondering, “Where’s the guitars?”  They’re on there, used sparingly but effectively.  “Citadel” has guitars; grimy, dirty guitars, chugging out distorted chords under Mick’s dreamy melodies.  This one reminds me of early Alice Cooper, who I am sure was influenced by this album.

Bill Wyman sings lead on “In Another Land”, the watery vocal track sounding like it was recorded in another land.   “2000 Man” is as catchy as anything else the Stones produced, with neat lyrics that must have seemed so forward-thinking in 1967.  I love the guitar melody, and how it sounds like a completely different song on the choruses.  “She’s A Rainbow” is a perfect pop song, as brilliant as “Ruby Tuesday” if not moreso due to Charlie Watts’ relentlessness.  Meanwhile, “The Lantern” happily meanders along, amidst what sounds like out-of-tune guitars and horns.  Likewise “Gomper” wanders about, loads of sitar invading the eardrums, and lots of other stuff I can barely identify.

“2000 Light Years From Home” is a good one, loaded with Brian’s mellotron, again sounding perpetually out of tune.  Fortunately Charlie keeps the song moving forward, his timing always perfect.  Then, “On With the Show” brings us back in time to a simpler age, Mick affecting an accent for this fun retro piece.

While every song has melodies and instrumentation coming out the wazoo, it surely is “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” (not to be confused with “Sing This All Together”) that is the centrepiece of this bizarre journey into the unknown. 8 1/2 minutes long, and never really going anywhere, some might consider this a waste of vinyl. On the other hand, those that have studied free improvisation will get inspiration out of this bizarre arrangement.

Brian Jones continued to experiment with multiple instruments including sitar (hey, it was the 60’s). Guests include Lennon and McCartney, Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane, Nicky Hopkins, and future Led Zeppelin bassist / keyboardist / string arranger John Paul Jones.

The original LP featured a lenticular cover gimmick, as well as a maze inside that can never be solved.  How quaint!

Next time somebody comes up to you and says, “Yeah, this new band that I like, they sound really Stones-y,” then respond by playing “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” and ask if this is what they meant. Watch the looks on their faces.

In the end, the Stones decided to return to their blues rock sound on Beggars Banquet, which was probably the best way to continue to have a viable career.

4/5 stars

GALLERY: Three More Great Finds

This time, I was in a store that a buddy of mine runs, the same location that Uncle Meat used to work in.   My buddy wasn’t in (sick) but one of my old trainees was working  I trained him towards the end of my run as a Record Store Dude.  I was pleased to see that he was as nice as ever, and had grown an awesome big bushy beard.

I found two treasures, and took a gamble on one vinyl purchase.  Here’s the details:

1.  GENE SIMMONS – Gene Simmons Family Jewels Season 1, with bonus CD

For $9.99, this was a decent find.  It’s missing the outer case, which I can live without.  I bought this for the bonus CD.  This is apparently an Amazon.com (not .ca) exclusive, currently selling for $13 plus shipping.  So I paid an acceptable amount.  The CD contains two songs:  “Rain Keeps Falling” (sounds like a Crazy Nights outtake) and “You’re My Reason For Living” (sounds much more recent).  These are from the “forthcoming” Gene Simmons box set called Monster.  (I’m guessing he won’t be using that title now.)  Considering that Amazon.com advertises the Gene Simmons Monster box set as coming in 2007, I thought it might be nice to have these two songs.

2. THE ROLLING STONES – “Doom and Gloom” 10″ single

This one was…I dunno…I like the song, “Doom and Gloom”, and I won’t be buying that Stones box set any time in the near future, so this seemed like a good way to get it.   What troubles me is this is a remix by somebody named Jeff Bhasker.  So I have no idea if this will be any good.  We’ll see.  Apparently it’s one track, with the second side etched with a Stones logo.  I haven’t cracked the seal yet.  At $18.99, this one was probably overpriced.  But I’m a sucker for gimmicky vinyl, so, whatever.

3. ERIC MARTIN – Pure (Japanese Import)

Eric Martin is, of course, the lead throat from Mr. Big, a band that is basically big only in Japan.  This solo EP collects new acoustic versions of his solo tracks and Mr . Big hits.  It even includes stuff written in his pre Mr. Big days, from his Sucker For A Pretty Face album.

I paid $8.99, which was way underpriced for this.  A European import version goes for about $7 on Discogs, but the much rarer Japanese you’ll be lucky to find for under $40.  They didn’t have the disc cataloged in their system as Japanese so I’m thinking they didn’t notice.  I did though!  The Japanese writing on the back was the dead giveaway, even though the obi strip is missing.

Another funny thing:  Somebody put a sticker over the cover statue’s nipple!  A pasty, so to speak.  (Sticker removed for this gallery; it’s only a statue after all.)

So; another enjoyable shopping experience.  Some treasures found.  Good tunes, good times.  Look for reviews one day on LeBrain’s Blog.

For ethical reasons, I don’t identify the place I used to work, considering the nature of the Record Store Tales.  However if I did a Store Report Card as I have done for other record stores, I would rank this particular location:

3.75/5 stars

Doom and Gloom