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The Picasso of album covers

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Mutated eyeballs glare from a sea of white powder. A red toothbrush bursts from a halo of yellow, obscured by strips of silver tape. Black-ink prints of white stallions and balloons press into the contours of wrinkled paper. The Whitney Biennial? No, but these images — some of the most adventurous CD cover art around — are no less suitable for framing. The brain spew of Vaughan Oliver, a British graphic designer who does album art for the indie label 4AD, these creations are to most album covers what Fendi bags are to the plastic grocery variety: art. In fact, Oliver’s beautifully evocative packaging and promotional items for 4AD’s mostly esoteric bands (the Cocteau Twins, Ultra Vivid Scene) are anticipated by fans almost as eagerly as the music.

Oliver, 35, who has been designing album covers for 13 years, calls his process ”entirely intuitive. I get inspiration directly from the music. And I never know how a piece will turn out until I am done.” How, for example, do you capture the manic howls of ex-Pixie Frank Black? Oliver chose an assault of orange neon rays for a special limited-edition LP cover of Black’s new solo album. This Mortal Coil’s eponymously titled new boxed set, on the other hand, needed a more doleful approach. Oliver picked model Pallas Citroen because ”her ethereal quality” evokes the band’s hauntingly maudlin sound.

Now as you stare intently at the CD cover while absorbing the sound, the visual speaks to you as loudly as the music. Just try that with an Ugly Kid Joe cover.

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