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Album art lives: The download era doesn't mean the end of lively design
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The designs bring a new kind of design experience to digital listening. For more photos, click gallery, above.

You might worry that digital releases and the newfound trendiness of cassettes will crowd out the possibilities of gorgeous cover art. Well, two Madison bands went the digital and cassette route on recent releases, and if anything, they went to greater lengths to get strong visuals.

The results can spring out at you rather aggressively. Lake Mills-based artist Craig Grabhorn screenprinted a jawless, winged skull for the cover of post-punk trio Control's Grabhorn, C. EP, the first of a planned trilogy that will all be titled tersely for their cover artists. And St. Paul artist Nick Nelson conjured a creepy variation on the Flying Spaghetti Monster to accompany "Rally," one of the six songs on instrumental electronic project Exurbs' self-titled debut EP.

Both releases are available as Bandcamp.com downloads and limited-edition cassettes. In spending a little extra time collaborating with artists, the bands make the case that album art has a fulfilling life beyond the LP.

Novel packaging is already something of a specialty for Control. The only physical manifestation of its first EP, 2010's Garza, D. (not part of the trilogy), was a T-shirt printed with a snake by Madison's Drew Garza. Designers Alyssa Schulte and Kevin Longino will provide the covers for Schulte, A. and Longino, K., planned for 2012.

Control will eventually combine those two and the Grabhorn EP into an album, but the small packages purposely stand alone. "Doing it in little EPs, it can be another story each time something comes out, because it seems like the only time people pay attention to music is if it has a story behind it," says drummer Luke Bassuener.

The art can even stand alone. Control is selling one Bandcamp package that is just a download plus a screenprint of Grabhorn's cover.

Control sends its cover artists music, then stays out of the actual art-making, which makes for some healthy contrast. The cover's skull comes off as more grim than the music on Grabhorn, C. For something you could call post-hardcore or math rock, Control is refreshingly loose and freeform. On the new release, Bassuener, guitarist Stephen Baraboo and bassist Matthew Rajala work plenty of tension and threatening growl into "Bridge Sleeper," "The Facts" and "A Slippery Slope," but they also find a great deal of warmth, funk and swing.

"I didn't necessarily hear a skull in that EP," Bassuener says of Grabhorn, C. "So it's cool to see what other people hear in it."

The tracks on Exurbs were recorded at Smart Studios, where Jeff Sauer of Czarbles, Andrew Fitzpatrick of All Tiny Creatures and Smart's Beau Sorenson gathered during the studio's final days in early 2010. Sauer says that Kraftwerk, Devo and the Residents all helped inspire the music, a mix of cheerfully repetitive rhythm tracks and tidy layers of synth and guitar.

Designer Nelson created a cover and six "song images" that cycle across an iPod screen as their companion tracks play. On "Vega," Sorenson and Fitzpatrick skip over the rhythm with electronic wiggles that resemble a playfully dissonant sax improvisation, before pulling it all into a sleekly executed crash. Nelson interprets this with what appear to be curvy pipes amid yellow-edged clouds - abstract, but, like the song, disciplined, with enough clean lines and distinct elements that it never blurs into a whimsical mess.

For "Rally," the quickest and punchiest track on Exurbs, Nelson offers a pile of pasta with a statue's disembodied arms and creepy-eyed head, obviously some kind of Flying Spaghetti Monster. The picture highlights the playfulness Exurbs hears in electronic music, a genre often stereotyped as pretentious and rigid.

The images may or may not match what you hear, but they bring a new kind of design experience to digital listening. In electronic and tape formats that can feel cheap and confining, Exurbs and Grabhorn, C. prove there's yet room for a little something thoughtful.

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