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March 1-7, 2006

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Kiosk of Misfit CDs

The music no one checks out at the public library

By Sara Bir


Today was a great day in free music. I stopped in at our miniscule local library branch, and in the breezeway saw the usual metal carts offering a motley assortment of yellowed romance paperbacks and ESL workbooks with half the answers penciled in—all of them free for the taking. Typically, I walk right past these carts, but today I saw something else: crates and crates of mildewed records. It was an odd assortment of Mahler, Mozart, Mancini and Chaka Khan. I went nuts, plucking stinky LPs with primo cover art right and left: Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies; the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra's More Music for Relaxation; the Smokey and the Bandit 2 original soundtrack. It took all of my willpower to tear myself away. I knew I was not going to listen to any of those albums, but they were free! I am poor and must create an illusion of reckless consumerism to appease my diabolical spending genes.

Once inside the library, I made the usual rounds to the picked-over DVD shelf and then to the compact discs. At least once a week, I faithfully file through these sections, searching stupidly for something new and exciting. Every now and then something delicious will turn up, but usually it's the same old crap. As a lifelong patron of public libraries, I've learned that a library's CD selection is a great place if you want to discover opera, jazz or wedding-music compilations, but if you have a hankering for pop music, good luck.

The pop-music selection at most any public library is its weakest link. These are the misfit CDs of the library. Misfit CDs are as much a fixture of the library as the stubby golf pencils and slips of scratch paper at the card catalogue terminals.

But I was still glowing from my windfall of free records, and in a fit of compassion, I decided to take a risk and be the first person in untold years to check out those misfit CDs. My plan was to listen to them at home and see if they truly deserved their lowly status. And so I left the library with Roy Orbison's Laminar Flow, Michael Bolton's 1983 self-titled ballad-a-thon, Pearl Jam's No Code, David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile and Huey Lewis & the News' Four Chords & Several Years Ago.

Nearly all misfit CDs share one crucial attribute: their covers are truly awful. Roy Orbison's Laminar Flow, originally released in 1979, boasts a shirtless Roy Orbison wearing a half-zipped leather jacket. Orbison's concave, hairless chest calls to mind that of a prepubescent boy's, and the juxtaposition is repulsive. The album itself is so vapid that I can't even call it awful. It's the audio equivalent of empty calories. Laminar Flow clearly belongs in the land of misfit CDs.

The Michael Bolton CD likewise lethally combines a shirtless solo artist and a leather jacket, though on this particular album, Bolton not only has hair on his chest but all over his head, thereby dating the album. Considering that Michael Bolton is, to the average American, nothing more than a punch line to cruel mullet jokes, it's quite understandable that his albums wind up being misfit CDs, regardless of quality.

Pearl Jam's No Code is a misfit among misfit CDs. Its cover is cool, a grid of color photograph close-ups, but the band's name appears on it nowhere. This may account for patrons constantly passing up the library's copy, but Mr. Bir Toujour's theory is that No Code is one of the most oft-spotted used CDs on earth; a small hut constructed entirely out of used copies of No Code would be an excellent project in ReadyMade magazine. The good news is that No Code does not suck. Perhaps the less people care about Pearl Jam, the better the band gets.

And then there's David Lee Roth. Eat 'Em and Smile has a close-up of Mr. Roth in some kind of feathery cannibal/witchdoctor regalia on its cover—but it gets worse inside: he's naked! Ick! Eat 'Em and Smile sounds the way it looks. No library benefits from such ugliness. Huey Lewis & the News are much kinder to the eye and ear. Four Chords & Several Years Ago, a collection of 1950s rock 'n' roll hits, neither thrills nor offends; in other words, it's no Sports.

There's one misfit CD that I didn't check out, but that's because I already own a copy: Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. Many an alt-rock/indie fan would call it seminal, one of the most important rock albums of the 1990s. And yet there it is, a misfit CD. Maybe misfit CDs don't follow any logic after all.

I eventually did listen to the free musty albums, which provided me with much more pleasure than the misfit CDs did. But those abandoned records were misfits themselves—come on, Smokey & the Bandit 2? No one wants white elephant records.

What is the fate of recorded music on media that's doomed to eventually become obsolete? How much longer will it be before something else comes along to take the place of CDs at the library? When that day comes, perhaps there will be crates of misfit CDs on metal carts in the library breezeway, free to random passersby. If you see a copy of Slanted and Enchanted, snatch it right up.


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