Saturday, May 22, 2010

Exile In Pixelville

Do you see anything wrong with the image below?

I see plenty wrong with it, and any visual artist I know would absolutely hit the ceiling if their work were reproduced in this way. The image is, of course, the iconic cover to the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St album that features a Robert Frank photograph of a photo collage that he discovered on the wall of a tattoo parlor. This is a scan of the new deluxe edition artwork. Resolution issues aside (which are partly the fault of my scanner), the first thing I noticed about the new cover is that the color balance is off. The whole cover has a reddish tint, while the original LP had no tinting whatsoever. To my eyes the tinting looks "wrong," although I admit it could be considered a legitimate artistic choice. But as you will see below, there are some other things about the way the image was manipulated that are very hard to understand.

More annoying to me is the fact that to fit the original square-shaped cover to the rectangular dimensions of a digipack, someone has done a Photoshop hack job on the image. Take a look at the blue highlighted selections below. Do they look familiar?

They should, as they've simply been cropped out of the original image and repeated. See the areas highlighted in red below to see the parts of the image that have been duplicated.

Once I noticed this repetition of images, I found it incredibly distracting. My eye is continually drawn to the elements in the image that are repeated. I understand that they needed to do something to fit a square image to the rectangular dimensions of a digipack, it's just that I feel they found the worst possible way to do it.

Here is a photo I took of my Exile On Main St LP cover using nothing more than a Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera with stock lens:

I cleaned up the image slightly in Photoshop then cut the text to a separate layer. Next, I used the "desaturate" adjustment to make sure the cover was truly black and white. This probably took me around ten minutes.

Once I started looking at the original cover, I noticed something interesting: I had originally assumed the repetition of images for the deluxe reissue was needed to prevent cropping the image, but in fact someone cropped a significant amount of material out of the original image to create the deluxe artwork. See the highlighted areas below to see what was cut out:

This makes the choice to repeat material even more mystifying to me. Somebody actually chopped off some of the horizontal information, which makes no sense if you are trying to transform a square image into a horizontally aligned rectangular one.

If they had merely cropped the image in the way you see it below, it would have fit the dimensions of the digipack perfectly with no need for repeating images. Yes, some of the original cover would have been lost, but no more than was cropped out anyway.

If they wanted to keep the entire original album cover intact, they could have added some sort of sidebar, as I often see on such deluxe reissues. I created a possible example below, although I am sure someone more creative than me could do something much more interesting. But at least this way none of the iconic album cover is lost.

I didn't spend very long manipulating any of these images, and I admit they are far from perfect. If I had better equipment, a better source, and more time I could have done a lot better. Nevertheless, I think the options I've presented here would have been preferable to the very strange and unappealing artwork that was created for this deluxe reissue. Of course if they had chosen to go with standard jewel case packaging, none of this manipulation would have been necessary in the first place. I personally don't believe digipacks are mandatory for deluxe reissues, although they do seem to be the norm.

Okay, I realize there are bigger problems in the world than botched CD reissue artwork. I'm honestly more puzzled by this than anything: the more closely I looked at the artwork, the more questions I had, and the less sense any of it made to me. I'd be interested to hear possible explanations for what I consider some very strange choices. But considering how iconic this album cover is (John Lydon has admitted that it was a huge influence on the visual aesthetic of punk rock), I think it is a real shame to see it treated with so little respect.

If I haven't said anything about the music on Exile On Main St yet, it's because I assume you know it's great: a near perfect fusion of rock, blues, country and gospel. It is the fullest realization ever of what Gram Parsons envisioned as "Cosmic American Music" despite the fact that it was (mostly) made by five Brits living in France.

The deluxe reissue is worth picking up for the bonus disc, but not, in my opinion, for the remastering. Target is selling an exclusive "rarities edition" that is just the bonus CD for $10. It's refreshing to have an option not to repurchase the original album but still be able to get the bonus tracks for a reasonable price.

I know Exile is supposed to be a "bad" sounding recording, but if you find a good copy on LP and play it back on a decent system, it is actually a very lively and real sounding recording. The warts and all sound shocked a lot of people back in 1972 because the Stones chose not to adhere to the post-Abbey Road norm of slickly produced multi-track rock music. The album sounds all the more vital today because of that fact.

Unfortunately, the new remaster does adhere to today's norm of dynamically compressing older recordings, which to my ears ends up emphasizing the murkier aspects of the recording. For the best sounding Exile on CD I recommend finding a used copy of the 1994 Virgin reissue that was remastered by Robert Ludwig. Better yet, find an Artisan pressed original UK or US LP, as none of the CD reissues have bettered it sonically.


I looked at the non-deluxe edition CD in a record store today, and the cover art on that also features some strange repetition of images, even though the image is rectangular. Some of the images that were cropped from the bottom of the original cover reappear, but there is another band of repeated images at the bottom. Weird.


wardo said...

1. I found out about Target selling the bonus disc alone AFTER spending $30 for the set at Barnes & Noble, which was selling it online for $20.

2. The new edition all but crops out the photo of Chris O'Dell on the back cover, too.

Doug said...

Perhaps you should start marketing services about reissue artwork consulting. Certainly seems there's a need for it.

I was always a bit more of a Beatles guy, and found enough of the Stones on greatest hits packages to get me by, but Exile is the one full Stones album I bought.

Pete Bilderback said...

I like the Beatles plenty too, but I am probably more of a Stones fan overall.

Can you imagine the fan reaction if the cover for The White Album had been hacked up in Photoshop like this? Okay, wait...nevermind.

Actually major kudos are due to EMI and Apple Corps for the packaging job on the Beatles Mono Box set. They did a beautiful job on those. The stereo ones are pretty good too. It's kind of old news now, but I should probably post something on that just to balance out the negativity.

Virgin did a great packaging job on the Stones' catalog back in '94 with limited edition mini-LPs. Those still turn up on eBay for not too crazy money.