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10.16.2011

NOT QUITE DEAD






The Spinanes’ Manos was not the first record I bought blind. This was a little over ten years ago, as the contrails of the 90s were fading into the next shiny millennium, back when you almost always bought music blind. Back when you almost always bought music, really, sometimes going on nothing more than a glut of praise gleaned from magazines serving as both field guide and failsafe. I bought a lot of records this way, on a wing and a prayer and a Five Star rating from Q. But Manos was the second record I bought blind because of the cover. The first was Nirvana’s Nevermind, and that’s since been rightly exalted into album cover canon. Manos hasn’t. I don’t think it will be but I think it should. Funnily, it’s a line from a Lush song that comes to mind every time I look at it: “ . . .shake baby shake you know I can fit you in my arms . . .” Rebecca Gates’ troubled eyes hiding under a shock of hair, her left hand holding on to his right, her right about to do the same with his left, half given in to their imminent calm, so grateful for them being there she can’t help but kiss the hand she’s holding even before she’s fully tumbled into his arms, arms she knows she would fit into, get lost in. It was love at first sight for me. And as much as I was betrayed by some of the records I bought blind, Manos was thankfully not one of those. Still, even if their songs blew, I’d at least have the cover tiding me over. I’ve since picked it as the album cover I love above all else.

And I have nearly all else. Most of them are stacks of DVD-Rs storing JPEGs of album covers, or sleeve art, as parlance would have it: everything from Peter Saville’s violently minimalist New Order covers to the sinister cartoons of Jim Flora and the benign hallucinations of Hipgnosis to the complete works of Blue Note’s Reid Miles and 4AD’s Vaughan Oliver and, of course, Sir Peter Blake’s monolithic Sgt.Pepper, a multitude of sensibilities, marvels of design all. I even have folders devoted entirely to the worst of the lot and have gleefully dumped that awful one for MGMT’s Congratulations in one of them. Yes, I’m a sleeve art buff. A sleeve art nerd, if you will. A sleeve art packrat, at the very least. But it really is closer to curatorship than collecting as it isn’t consumed merely with the act of collecting. At some point, you can even call it a co-dependency. And it comes more out of being a design fan than being a music fan, although it helps, but one need not dovetail into another, as I’ve fallen in love with the sleeve art for music I don’t necessarily care for as much, like any number of Roger Dean’s covers for Yes, whose gatefolds open into these exquisite alien vistas. But I also own a lot of the sleeve art I love. And this is where the pleasures become even more arcane, as it not only plays into a sensation that’s endemic to even the most cursory record collectors but upgrades it: the tactile high of the album as object.

It’s an even more rarefied thrill now that downloading has all but colonized the way we listen to music. And this whole new zeitgeist of having everything at your disposal tends to make having everything meaningless, taking away so much from what used to be fundamental to the experience of music: the pining for, the foraging, the sleuthing, the deprivation before the elation. There already is, right now, an entire generation of music geeks who have never torn the plastic off a new CD, yet own everybody’s discographies in their hard drives. Frankly, it’s a little unsettling. Sleeve art icons Saville and Blake have gone on record as saying that not only is their trade dying faster than we think because of this, but that the album as physical artifact is dying with it. Except that I see a lot of bands becoming more and more elaborate with their sleeve art. I see more and more bands issuing albums on vinyl even. It’s as if there’s this defiant thrust to restore the cachet of the album as physical artifact back into the mix. Not quite dead, then, sirs.

Oh, I do listen to hordes of albums without the benefit of owning any of them physically. But I still buy CDs as often as I can. If there really is some collective endeavor to rescue the physical album, and with it sleeve art, from obsolescence and eventually extinction, I’m putting a little skin in the game, so to speak. I know that makes me come on like some recalcitrant throwback, a shambling anachronism even, but if you’ve ever peeled the banana off Andy Warhol’s cover for Velvet Undergdound & Nico or used the spectral decoder that came with Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga to see its invisible cover or customized your own cover for Beck’s The Information with its special set of stickers or merely had the optical illusion on Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion play tricks on your eyes, you know precisely what my stake is. There’s a purist stance about sleeve art , moreso sleeve art with aspirations to flamboyance, that has to do with how its extraneous, distracting, bells and whistles. That’s true. But isn’t that also the point?

*Originally published in UNO.

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