T he pundit class’s longstanding doom-and-gloom take on hard-copy books has always seemed more about stock market outlooks and missed revenue projections than about real consumer demand. The rest of us still seem to like our old-fashioned bundles of wordy paper sheets.
CDs are a different story. Music’s importance in human affairs is constant, but the compact disc format, once standard, is losing its physical place in our lives: the big computer makers are now building much of their hardware without native CD drives, opting instead for lighter, sleeker designs and maximal portability. You can buy a compatible external DVD/CD drive for less than $20, but surely most new computer buyers never go to the extra trouble.
It’s some irony that the Ives Main Library’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of CDs are in a sense more passé than its books, which don’t rely on any technological accommodation to use. And you might wonder what good some thousand CDs are anyway, against the ranks of free cloud-based music streaming services like Spotify.
But there’s a (jewel) case to make for taking the Ives approach to music appreciation and discovery. The library’s disc selection, alphabetized loosely by artist name and available 10 at a time to library cardholders, includes albums by beloved artists either wholly or mostly unavailable on Spotify, like The Beatles and the Dead Kennedys. And while the overall selection is more limited than Spotify’s—if the library has a thousand CDs, that’s just a drop in Spotify’s bucket—that can also be a good thing. This is curated music, plucked from a frothing maelstrom of recorded sound, that’s surprising for its breadth but also for its edge.
In addition to “CD” and “curation,” in the Ives Library music collection, the letter “c” is for The Clash. It’s for Bing Crosby and The Chemical Brothers, Leonard Cohen and The Cure, Chick Corea and Nick Cave. Sure, it’s for Coldplay, too, but it’s also for “compilation”—doubly so for The Copulatin’ Blues, an obscure 22-tracker featuring various artists performing blush-inducing blues tunes.
Among the library’s “popular” music CDs, kept separate from a large classical section, Shut Yo’ Mouth! (1991) stands out for its title’s un-library-like take on a very library-like sentiment. It also stands out as a great example of an unexpected gem that you can stumble across in 10 minutes among CD racks but wouldn’t run into on Spotify if you browsed for a week straight. The album, which, according to the liner notes, was posthumously released and almost never saw the light of day, stars Slam Stewart and Major Holley. At the time of the recording, both were aging members of an extremely rare species: acoustic jazz bassists proficient with both fingers and bows, and who hummed and scatted and occasionally sang actual words along with their bowed bass lines. On Mouth!, Stewart, who vocalized an octave up from unison with his bass, and Holley, who sang in true unison with his, often call and answer each other to hilarious effect. A great track is “Would You Like to Take a Walk,” which is as breezy and cheerful as it sounds but also seems like it might be poking that sentiment in the eye with a stick.
Capturing genuine breeziness is no trouble for Joe Baker’s single-track Wind and Rain, a member of the collection’s very small “Meditation and Nature Sounds” section (and not to be found on Spotify), nor for Earth Wind & Fire, whose album of greatest hits, released between 1974 and 1981, rests on the front side of the popular-music racks. On the other side are a pair of records by R.E.M.—its mainstream breakout Out of Time (1991) and popular follow-up Automatic for the People (1992)—a band which can’t seem to sound jaunty even when it’s trying, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Besides, nearby is So Beautiful or So What (2011) by Paul Simon, a CD that can revive anyone’s spirits in thirty seconds flat.
In theory, a service like Spotify could play you as great and satisfying a mix, involving diverse artists like these. But would it? Probably not. The points on the line aren’t linear enough, and the curation process is too passive. An algorithm, or even a playlist put together by another human, still can’t beat the spontaneous, self-directed stew of happy discovery and fond remembrance that comes with flipping through the CD collection at the local library.
Ives Main Library CD racks
133 Elm St, Lower Level, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.