Saturday, March 15, 2014

Completely Random Thoughts #56: Under The Covers!

In the midst of all of the wonderful music and, in particular, albums that we've seen in the first two and half months of 2014, something which has been no less remarkable has been lost in the proverbial shuffle in my opinion and that is the OUTSTANDING artwork and cover art, in general, that we've already seen from attached to various projects. And I thought that not only would it be a good idea to look at a couple of the pieces we've already seen, but to also briefly take a look back at some of our favourite pieces, concepts and artistes in recent years.
One of the two pieces which really got this idea moving was the album cover for the recently released compilation, "Living Heart Vol. 1" from XTM. Nation. I immediately recognized that work and the fact that it was credited to an "Original Jeremiyah", made it even easier. The artiste there is Jerry 'Jeremiyah' Neville and it wasn't the first time we'd massively enjoyed his work. Previously, back in 2012, Neville had also designed the brilliant cover for Lloyd Brown's triumphant album, "30" and I'm fairly certain that he also penned cover of the followup to that album, "New Veteran", in the following year (an album whose iTunes only fate still bothers me). The piece which adorns "Living Heart Vol. 1" is absolutely amazing in featuring the legendary maestro, Philip 'Fatis' Burrell, surrounded by various figures who helped him to make Xterminator Productions into one of the greatest labels Reggae music has ever (and will ever) seen - including the likes of Beres Hammond, Luciano and Sizzla Kalonji. It's spectacular. "30" was just as impressive in its own way, however, in showing various stages of Brown who was then celebrating the completion of his thirtieth year in the music. Presumably the inspiration there was album covers and it was a beautiful thing to have attached to such an important release. Neville's style is very simple, he's a people drawer and he draws them in these amazingly textured looking ways. And though I'm someone who struggles to draw straight lines and circles with ruler and compass in-hand, I can well appreciate the time and the vision it must have taken to come up with something like these amazing creations. 

Drawing people, in general, is something that I enjoy seeing when it comes to covers. It's always interesting  to see how much (or not so much) the caricature is similar to the actual person and we've seen it in various ways throughout the years. Definitely one of my favourites came a loooooooong time ago when Lustre Kings Productions once introduced themselves to the world on the strength of an unforgettable compilation, "Culture Dem Vol. 1". 
This one is done by the very prolific Ras Jah Terms (who also did a very interesting feature on the back inlay for Jah Mason's impossible to find debut album, "Keep Your Joy" and the cover for "Meditation" by The Nazarenes) and I've always appreciated it for its simple approach. There're a whole heap of different artists on this compilation - just draw a few of them and he did so very well (particularly with Jah Mason and Anthony B and a few more, actually). This is a feature which would continue throughout the series (although it would no longer include artists in editions three and four, respectively) and has been wonderfully seen in other examples as well.

More general drawings have also been really nice and, by far, the king of that arena has been the one Ras Elijah Tafari who not only took our best cover of 2013 with "Be Strong" by Midnite, but also seems to be the early favourite of 2014 with the GOLDEN drawing for one of the best album covers I've ever seen, Rob Symeonn's opus, "Indigenous". 
"Be Strong" always stands out as, besides the obvious visual attraction, the image is one which is very powerful as we see a family headed to His Imperial Majesty, Who is seated within the headpiece of an elephant so massive that ships sail beneath it and mountains and clouds fail to reach its bottom. Tafari has consistently done the Midnite album covers for Fifth Son Records and also very impressive were his chaotic work for the "In Awe" album, DEFINITELY the sublime simplicity of "Standing Ground" and the downright clever "Momentum". 

When you talk about Midnite, you open up another discussion, given their frequently captivating drawn album covers as well. This year we've seen another beautiful piece from the 'group' in "Beauty For Ashes". It, like many of their covers, is attributed to Marcus whose own portfolio is arguably as striking as Midnite's. I also really liked, in retrospect, the work Marcus did for "Kings Bell" and "Rule The Time", for I Grade Records and also "Better World Rasta" and "Aneed" for Rastar and Groundbreaking Records, respectively (and probably two dozen others as well). 

Marcus' style is one which very much borders on and unites the tangible with the abstract and that, to some degree, has also been the type of style which has been one of the most popularly used in recent times. You'll see one version of it utilized on the cover of another 2014 favourite of ours, "In My Father's House" by Addis Pablo, and you'll see a seemingly endless line of other examples found in predominately digital-only riddim releases which have recently arose. The digital age of Reggae music has produced some of the most fascinating illustrations that I've ever seen which would have been completely foreign even as recent as five years ago or so and they are seemingly produced at a rate which is just as fascinating (if not more so) as the actual artwork. Some of our many favourites here include the Voyage Riddim, definitely the Split Personality, the recent Big City Riddim and even the Radioactive Riddim which was not only very colourful and chaotic - but also in 3D. 

You can also take that same concept and begin to bridge a gap towards the more regular type of artwork (which can also be damn astonishing) (more on that in a second) and we've seen that happen many times as well. The biggest example here would be the Live version of Sizzla's "The Real Thing". There is an infinitely compelling contrast of covers between the original and the Live versions of that album. While both, technically, are based on photos which're almost painfully bland and normal, the Live album is far from "bland" and the original is as well (you have to look at it for a while (it took me a dozen years) before you realize that it really is just a picture on a white background). Vybz Kartel's "JMT" album, sans the contrast obviously, would be another similar creation as would be the fittingly menacing cover of Mad Cobra's ridiculous 2013 single, 'Defend It'. And I'm also tempted to include the covers of another Sizzla album, "The Messiah" and Damian Marley's "Halfway Tree". 

But sometimes, if you keep things simple, the results can be just as rewarding. This can be demonstrated in a variety of different ways as well. The one that sticks out most vibrantly is the cover for Junior Kelly's final album for VP Records (to date), "Red Pond". This cover came celebrated, years ago, by the great Dale Cooper, who correctly remarked on just how fantastic that cover really was. To a lesser degree, I've always appreciated the kind of stoic confidence exuded on the cover of Sizzla's "Taking Over" where the artist sits not as if 'the takeover' was a forgone conclusion, but an already crossed off entry on a 'To Do' list. Just last year, Etana made an album which I also have to mention here, "Better Tomorrow". Anytime someone so beautiful looks SO damn happy, you have to take notice and we definitely did. And speaking of HAPPY, another cover basically BATHING in simple happiness is the piece heading Soca queen, Alison Hinds' debut solo album… "Soca Queen". That cover was only her face, but her headpiece, real and implied, looked like a royal ancient Egyptian piece. Cropover meets Cleopatra. 

And, of course, if you're thinking of making an album and you can't get Jerry Neville, or Ras Elijah Tafari or Jah Terms or Marcus and you're unable to come up with anything in the way of visually impressive artwork. There will never not be room for yet another tried and tested method of attracting attention and selling albums. 

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