far from it

The Nine Days debut The Madding Crowd is self-sabotaged by the casual pretense of “meaning something” without having any real emotional capacity to mean anything. Like too many of the acts that have clustered under the epithet “alternative” over the years, Nine Days are technically proficient but are lacking the breath of life. Heartless relationship songs make up the bulk of The Madding Crowd and a lot of tedious everyday occurrences are blown up into widescreen for the rest. The first song, “So Far Away,” begins the album with some subtlety, but this is quickly spoiled at the chorus, at which point The Madding Crowd sinks into a project absent of memorable hooks or distinctive ideas. “Bob Dylan” (which samples its namesake with incredible distaste) does clumsily what the Barenaked Ladies did so well with “Brian Wilson” or even what Van Morrison did with “Jackie Wilson Said.” “Back To Me” is supremely annoying. At best, Nine Days play like a watered down del Amitri. At worst, they sound disarmingly like Bryan Adams (“Bitter,” “Sometimes” and “Wanna Be” — all of which are Brian Desveaux vocals) or even Nelson (“Crazy”).

The sleeve design is the only thing going for Nine Days. The front cover photo is sleek and colourful. Graphic design in music releases has come back into its own in the last ten years, an achievement considering the dark period across most genres of popular music in the 1970s and 1980s. Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell’s coffee table book 100 Best Album Covers collects some of the more noteworthy designs from the last fifty years, but its overall selection is bewildering.

As the cofounders of Hipgnosis, Thorgerson and Powell should know better. The book includes are a few classy examples of Reid Miles Blue Note sleeves and some token representations of the 1960s and 1990s, but there’s an overall absence of clean, elegant design in their selections. The editors allow that “Unfortunately (or not) the top-selling albums have some of the worst designed, most boring covers ever conceived,” which may be true enough, but taken as a whole 100 Best Album Covers is a disturbing exaltation of 1970s tackiness and over-detailed, leaden artwork.

The collection is not completely devoid of good contemporary examples — e.g. Pulp’s 1998 This is Hardcore and Nirvana’s Nevermind both make the list — but the editors were bamboozled by the then-newfound freedom and relative LP sales figures of the 1970s. If the period produced a few classics (not many) they are outweighed by the decade’s infamous kitsch and excess. Supertramp’s Breakfast in America only deserves to be placed as one of the gaudiest album covers ever created. The image and type are as repellent and overdone as its contents. ABC’s garish 1985 cartoon sleeve, How To Be a Zillionaire!, is also out of place in such a retrospective.

It would have made more sense to have selected the Patrick Nagel sleeve for Duran Duran’s Rio over the censored Vargas sleeve for the Cars’ Candy-O. Prince’s Sign ’O’ the Times is preferable to the ill-conceived nude cover for his subsequent album Lovesexy. Thorgerson and Powell are even inconsistent within their own guidelines: Blind Faith and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins break their rule about inclusion simply on the basis of notoriety. The Rolling Stones get in three times for gimmicky ideas (Sticky Fingers, Their Satanic Majesties Request and Some Girls). A sleeve that used irony to parody commercial gimmicks, The Who Sell Out, is missing. Thorgerson and Powell are surprisingly modest about their own accomplishments. Thorgerson designed most of the Pink Floyd sleeves, but only the obvious two, The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are merited notice. A Saucerful of Secrets and Meddle have more character.

The late Barney Bubbles is mentioned fondly, but much of his best work, including Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool, didn’t make the list. The Beatles are mentioned only for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not for Klaus Voormann’s Revolver art or the White Album or the most imitated LP sleeve ever, With the Beatles. Token homage is paid to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and The Hissing of Summer Lawns but not The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, ABBA’s Arrival or Head by the Monkees. There are better modern proponents of exemplary taste in graphic design, all deserving of praise: Sam Phillips (The Indescribable Wow, Martinis and Bikinis and Omnipop), XTC (too many to mention, but for now Oranges and Lemons, Fossil Fuel, and Apple Venus Volume One amongst many others), Rialto’s self-titled debut, and Sloan (One Chord To Another and Navy Blues). Madonna deserves much more credit than the book is willing to give, since her single and LP sleeves were never less than immaculate. (Ray of Light is only mentioned as a 1998 Grammy winner.)

The book’s system of annotation is good, displaying the right amount of research without the information being distilled into Pop-Up Video factoids. Edifying sidebars on graphic design and special packaging help to make up for some of Thorgerson and Powell’s misplaced affections, but the book pales before a later, much more useful effort by Q Magazine, Q 100 Greatest Record Sleeves.

©2000, 2003 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.