Apologies to Mark Williams.
Not for the reasons you might expect. We’ll get to the review of the actual material on his new album, Out Past the Moon, in a moment. So if you want to get right to the music critique, fast-forward a few paragraphs.
My apology is in regard to the fact that I’m using Williams’ new CD as a launching point for a rant about indie artists’ product packaging. This rant could easily extend to artist websites, photos, and bio material. It’s all, for the most part, terrible. In fact, when good album art, band pics and EPKs cross my desk, I am frankly surprised. We won’t dig that deep here. We’ll keep it to CD packaging only … for now.
Many say CDs (and vinyl) are dead, but they really aren’t. CD sales just this year dropped slightly below download sales and streaming for the first time. Point being, it will be a long while before the CD disappears. So I humbly request that if you’re going to release a CD, please … PLEASE … spend some money on art, design and packaging. I understand that the indie endeavor is inherently a low-dollar proposition with most of that being spent on recording and duplication. But for me, packaging is part of the experience. It always has been. Cracking open a new CD (or more viscerally, a vinyl record) is an act of commitment. The cover art, the typeface, the insert, the CD itself – it all plays a part in setting the tone for the listening experience. So goddammit, put some thought into it, spend a few extra bucks and hire an art director, pick a font other than Comic Sans or, in Williams’ case, Marker Felt (thin). You know, the one they use on all the library posters and childcare businesses to make them look chipper yet smart?
Too many local musicians think they can use their factory-issue CD art maker to put this stuff together. So inevitably they end up using free photo services and low-rent versions of Photoshop to create middle-of-the-road packaging. In Mark’s case (again, apologies, man), we are gifted with a nice-enough photograph of the moon in the upper right corner, with the words “Mark Williams with Blue Horse” and the title Out … Past the … Moon (Marker Felt font) floating in a cloudy night sky. Then, for reasons unknown, there is a superimposed concrete wall traversing the lower portion. The floating text and disconnected wall are confusing. A simple moonshot would have done the trick.
Inside, more of the same: Liner notes in Marker, a clip-art horse trotting around. The photo of Williams jamming on guitar is nice enough, but the pixelated pic on the back looks very 8-bit Mario Bros. And the kooky wall is there, too.
Does this really matter? I think it does, especially for an artist like Williams, whose music is moody, whose voice is raw and whose heart is exposed in his work. The packaging should reflect this. Opening track, “Quiet, Baby is Sleeping” is a perfect example. He’s creating a minor-chord atmosphere, with gypsy strings, Latin percussion and strummed electric and acoustic guitars. His upbeat mid-tempo instrumental, “When Jonathan Richman Comes to Town,” all harmonicas and lap steel, is another example, unrefined and rocking. The fade-in and premature fade-out give one the feeling of peeking in on a jam session. It’s all very personal. So should be the art.
The lovely title track deepens this vibe. Joined by Amy Carlson during the chorus, Williams’ grainy, trebly voice enjoys a sort of softening, with Carlson adding a lullaby-like quality to the tune. And the memorable “What Do I Say,” floating like the lyrics suggest, is certainly the finest track on the record. It’s the kind of piece you sink into, voices moving around you as the music drifts below. “Stephanie,” too, gets all brooding and Neil Young distortion-y, with mysterious imagery embedded in the lyrics and nasty, nasty guitar soloing. The lyrics are personal. Why isn’t the packaging? This production throughout is bleak and twangy. Why isn’t the packaging?
Again, and for the third time, I feel the need to temper this criticism with an apology to Williams. In truth, though, it’s an industry-wide phenomenon. Musicians, engineers, songwriters – so few of us are visual artists and art directors. Some of us want to be, but most of us fail, convinced by computer-based software makers that “You can do it, too!”
We can’t. That’s why I hired a local artist for my latest album. Being a fellow musician (one of those rare combinations of solid visual artist and songwriter), he gave me a price cut. Most local artists will do the same since 1. They understand your financial plight and 2. They want the work, a chance to do something artistic and not entirely crass and commercial. If all else fails, and you can’t afford an artist, go DIY punk. Use a real Magic Marker and hand-draw your CD covers.
Your audience – and I – will appreciate it.