Monday, March 10, 2008

Empirical Evidence - Vol. 1: Human Bell Lp

Human Bell - S/T LP (Thrill Jockey)

See, I knew that Top 10 music list would come in handy. If you go all the way back 2 posts, you will clearly see that i am a big fan of both Lungfish & Arbouretum. This is relevant because Human Bell is the team-up of two Baltimore indie-rockers, Lungfish bassist Nathan Bell & Arbouretum's frontman, guitarist & singer, David Heumann, playing gently sweeping guitar duets.

When I bought this record, I was pretty confident that I would love it because there are a lot of indicators that this would follow the Chicago post-rock formula, a genre of music i have a deep weakness for. Everything from the Thrilljockey record label, to engineering by John McEntire, to the odd black & white photo on the cover, suggested that this would sound a lot like Arial M, Pullman, Brokeback, Directions In Music, and any number of other accoustic-centered, Windham-Hill-sounding, melancholic instrumental artists who hung up their tight jeans & aggressive haircuts for sound-engineering day jobs & a new found appreciation of bluegrass & traditional Americana arrangements. It's true too, it sounds just like that, but in the most consistently mediocre fashion possible.

I want to love it. It has so much potential. All of the songs are built on solid ideas. The 2 guitarists play against each other expertly & for 30 seconds at a time it's a beautiful record, but the songs lack direction. Nathan Bell constructs the sort of straight looping guitar lines that would fuel any Lungfish track & Heumann scatters more wandering melodies on top, but they ride the ideas into the ground. Often they promise a building crescendo only to chicken out in the end and leave the track in anticlimax.

Thrilljockey supplied free MP3 downloads with the vinyl, a practice that I cautiously approve of, so these tracks will come up in shuffle. I will wonder which Do Make Say Think album these grey-morning instrumentals are from until they lumber along for a bit too long. So here's to hoping that the Human Bell project isn't abandoned all together, but they take a hard look at the record and think about crafting songs with a little more structure.


I really like the cover of the Human Bell album. It's an odd photo that suggests a lot about the music inside but maintains a mysterious distance. I appreciate the minimal take on the design, letting the black and white photo speak for itself, but designers need to include the name of the artist and album on a record cover!
Half of the challenge of doing graphic design is coming up with elegant solutions to design problems. I don't know how many times clients ask me to design flyers or record covers and they want me to put a phonebook of text on the thing. Bad designers simply click 8pt text and go town. The challenge is making the text work as part of the design, emphasizing the important words, making the big points clear from a distance and rewarding closer inspection with more detail. Album covers have only 2 important pieces of information to convey, the name of the artist and the name of the record, and if the record label has to slap a sticker on the shrinkwrap to tell the audience that modicum of knowledge, you failed.
I don't mean to pick on Human Bell with a bad review of the record and then a rant about the artwork. It's just that this seems to be a growing trend in cover design and it needs to be addressed.


Douglas said...

You know, I have a sticker on my forehead at all times that says "Doug King, Building Knowledge Inc." just to be sure that people know who I am. It's not the most elegant design, but until I can get "Doug" and "King" tattooed onto my eyelids, it's the best I can do.

Scott said...

Good rant. But I doubt the indie rock elitists give a damn.