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April 12-18, 2006

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Photograph by Danny Cinch
Slanted and Disenchanted: Pavement makes the library misfit CD list.

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; the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra; 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!

Once inside the library, I made it to the compact discs. The pop-music selection at most any public library is its weakest link. These are the misfit CDs of the library. 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 and David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile.

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. The Michael Bolton CD likewise lethally combines a shirtless solo artist and a leather jacket. 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. 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/witch-doctor regalia on its cover. Eat 'Em and Smile sounds the way it looks. No library benefits from such ugliness.

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. 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 passers-by. If you see a copy of Slanted and Enchanted, snatch it right up.

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