Revealing the Workings: A Trend in Album Art

25 March, 2006

How many instances of something does it take to make a trend? This week, I bought my third record in recent history that includes, in its liner notes, something of a guide to its production. And I'm not just talking about basic names and places either, but attempts at comprehensive documentation of the means and materials behind the recording.

The first was In Case We Die by Architecture in Helsinki [warning: terrible flash site with auto-playing music]. This excellent, fun, sprawling Australian band includes upwards of ten members and their songs feature surprisingly diverse and varied instrumentation. In order to document the specifics of each song's line-up, the band included an instrumentation grid:

In Case We Die instrument chart

The x-axis, along the top, is labeled with track numbers 01-12. The y-axis lists all the possible instruments (from Roland SH-101 through "Hand and Power Tools"). And the lighter dots indicate the presence of a particular instrument on a particular track -- which is counter-intuitive, but made clear if you look at the lines of dots for Sitar and Electric Guitar. The result resembles nothing so much as a DNA printout:

simpson dna evidence

A similar example is this week's new Loose Fur record, Born Again In The USA. Loose Fur is something of a Chicago all-star band featuring Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, producer, composer, and all-around solo-genius Jim O'Rourke recently of Sonic Youth, and Glen Kotche, drummer for Wilco and much of the Chicago experimental jazz world. Compared to In Case We Die, Born Again In The USA features a more traditional line-up with less instrumental variety. Their instrumental grid is, therefore, much sillier and more playful than Architecture in Helsinki's. Each page of the booklet has a line of incredibly unflattering pictures of each band member (it looks like they simply pressed their faces against the bed of a scanner and shut their eyes while the light passed over them) with close-up snapshots of their instruments arrayed below them:

Born Again In The USA liner note spread

The result is shambling and informal and feels much like the record: seemingly straight forward but hard to get a complete hold on, easygoing and unprepossessing yet backed by a high level of technical mastery.

The final example, Drum's Not Dead by the Liars takes this idea to the furthest conceivable extreme. The Liars is an itinerant band recording each consecutive record in a different city. Drum's Not Dead found them physically in Berlin, but mining mostly a musical history dominated by New York: the dark abstract physical muscularity of No Wave.

Drum's Not Dead's liner notes seem designed to do nothing less than allow the reader to recreate the record from scratch themselves at home. They describe virtually every aspect of the sound generation and recording process for each song. Here are the first two pages of the booklet:

Be Quiet Mt Heart Attack! Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack

The text on the left page describes what guitars they used ("Fender Jazz master, Gibson SG, Squire Music Master copy customized by the handsome, talented, and gentle Ole Wolfers") along with their tunings and string gauges. The right page has the notes for the first song:

Julian's kit mic'd with unbalanced Sure microphone through B-26 Pitch Shift setting on Roland Porta Studio activated at the end of the song. Aaron's kit mic'd with same unbalanced microphone through Boss, PS-3 then MXR D+, then RV-5 stereo split through Amplifiers. Drum mics placed facing amplifiers. Regeneration produced differently according to room size and acoustics. Angus & Aaron play guitars tuned to DFFCBB.

And then there's a hand-scrawled chart showing how everything was arranged in the room and giving additional technical information. It continues like this for each song on the record.

What does all of this mean? My instinct is to say something about the influence of music on the role of the CD in music distribution and the relationship between bands and their audiences. When anyone anywhere can get any of your songs anytime online, the physical CD has to provide something extra beyond the music. And the most compelling thing it can provide is a sense of being brought into the band's world. Using liner notes to reveal the means used to make the music is a way of doing that, giving everyone a chance to see things from the band's vantage point. This goal stands in stark contrast to the role of albums and the use of album art in the high period for albums as an artistic medium: the late sixties. For bands of that era, albums were complete indivisible aesthetic statements in themselves and their art served to surround their makers with myth and to obfuscate their own making. Think of Sgt. Peppers, Cheap Thrills, and Blue. If these sleeves provided any information about the songs they contained it was in the form of lyrics to be poured over, analyzed, and debated. They were vehicles of their authors' legend.

In the age of file-sharing, mp3 blogs, and the iTunes store, the album is waning, at least as the unit of music distribution if not necessarily of production (it will take a while for the creative and economic advantages of writing, recording, and releasing music in batches to be overcome by the increasing technological ease and omnipresence of all of these processes). And, more importantly, the age of the distant Rock Star Legend is ending. Fans are, increasingly, demanding not the distance required for the creation of mythology, but intimacy. They want bands to blog and make themselves and their music available to bloggers. They want bands to release music under lenient licenses that allow them to become creatively involved with it through remixing and mashups. And they want to see bands play in smaller more intimate venues.

If the album is going to thrive under these circumstances rather than be made irrelevant by them, it is going to change. It will become a vehicle for this intimacy. More, it will have to become just one small piece of traffic in an entire highway network connecting bands to their fans more closely than ever before. Maybe, just maybe, this trend marks the beginning of that change.

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