Audio Visuals

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collected over years of writing about music. I keep them behind closed doors because they’re ugly. Who wants to see towering jewel case stacks perched in a precariously earthquake-unfriendly way? The sad thing is, a lot of the covers are awesome, but they’re all buried because there’s no interesting way to display CDs.

As music libraries exist less on our shelves and more in that sci-fi ether called “the cloud,” collecting audio with a strong visual component has become more of an art. And I’m not just talking about LPs. (They’re perennially cool, and vinyl is a cake to showcase.) Musicians are going bananas crafting the ephemera around their jams.

Look at local icon Sonny Smith, whose 100 Records project had him creating imaginary bands whose 7-inch singles – with cover art designed by famous artists – filled a handmade jukebox for a traveling exhibit. Or scroll through Scott Hansen’s website, ISO50. He records gorgeous electronic soundscapes under the name Tycho and also designs dynamite retro-futuristic posters, T-shirts, and lithographs.

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If you want to hit the holy grail of innovative music packaging, though, you need to nerd out with San Francisco’s most iconic music geeks at Aquarius Records. In a world of dwindling sales for physical products, Aquarius consistently sells out limited-edition releases to the fanatic folks on their mailing list. In fact, co-owner Andee Connors had picked out a dozen examples to show me, only to have some of them sell before I got to the shop.

With the influx of people downloading and stealing songs, musicians are putting a lot more effort into making things look “worth buying and loving,” according to Andee. He personally covets a “record” he’s never even listened to, a collector’s item from a doom metal act called Moss. The group recorded one 90-minute dirge on cassette tapes and packaged them in cases welded together with iron, nails, rusty hinges, chain, and other industrial materials, softened with bits of moss. It doesn’t get heavier (in every sense of the word, including the shipping) than that.

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Other offerings are a little more delicate. Andee and I sifted through limited-run releases from local label Time Released Sound, which has a roster of bands creating handmade objects that are as much about aesthetics as they are about folk and ambient music. He blew my mind describing something the label put out by the band Plinth that involved songs housed in a music box with strips hand-punched by musician Michael Tanner. Michael made 70 copies of this working music box, which was collaged with clock hands, Victorian calling cards, and other relics.

We moved on to some comic relief, including a box full of faux yeti fur that accompanied the music of local band Snailface. Another group, Body Hammer, had a samurai theme to the fabric included in their packaging.

Those products were kitschy and cute, but I was dumbstruck when Andee pulled out a VHS tape. If you thought cassette tapes were retro, check out a VHS tape by a group called Psychic Teens on the label Video/Horror/Show. “They make videos more than they make records,” he added, “so their new songs are often YouTube releases.” Could music recorded on old 8-tracks be next?

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The more I looked around Aquarius, the more I realized how many albums had been screen-printed, used reflective inks, or were somehow made by hand. Andee estimated that half of the self-recorded artists he carries go all out like this.

The records that spoke to me most, though, were good looking punk and garage rock offerings with handmade art. I loved Rock Is Hell’s box set of eight white 7-inches housed in a pizza box, for example. Another release from the label had 5-inches – which Andee said are so small the songs play for, like, a minute. Pretty damn punk.

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I eventually dropped $30 on an awesome flexi-disc book from Castle Face. The spiral-bound hardcover looks like a child’s reading primer, with original artwork by William Keihn and exclusive tunes on thin sheets of vinyl by Bare Wires, the Fresh & Onlys, Ty Segall, and, of course, Thee Oh Sees (their main man, John Dwyer, runs Castle Face).

This rockin’ read was the last one available at Aquarius (sorry, suckers), and the bright colors and groovy design will look right at home at my place. So much better than the mountains of plastic crap I’ve accumulated from yesteryear.

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This story originally ran in Volume 3 of The Bold Italic magazine – SF By Design – which is available for purchase as a single issue or with a subscription.

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Published on May 4, 2012, 2012

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