Clearing the Racks

This must be some kind of first.

On Saturday I caught a bus out to the Haight to spend a few idle hours flipping through the CDs at Amoeba Music, and of course found myself strangely drawn to the clearance racks. This being America, Land of Plenty, there were thousands of CDs in the clearance racks, all of which would have taken hours to go through completely. Um, all of which did take hours to go through completely.

I don't know why I do it. I could just slap down fifteen bucks and pick up that Travis album I've been hanging out for, and save myself hours of pointless flipping. Surely I've learnt by now that the chances that the new Elastica and Saint Etienne CDs have been misfiled in the clearance racks are vanishingly small?

The trouble is, those bands fall into my B-list. They're the ones where I don't shell out top-dollar for their new releases the instant I see them. After all, if I did that with every band I enjoyed, I'd be bankrupt, and would live in an experimental home showcasing the excellent insulating properties of stacked CD cases.

But just because a band is on the B-list doesn't mean I've forsaken them. No, they're the ones where I still want to get their CDs—but cheap. That way I avoid (or at least postpone) bankruptcy, and keep the rate of growth of my collection at a level where it won't go into an exponential curve until two weeks after I die.

It's a necessary precaution, but often a frustrating one. I'll go around for weeks, months or even years with nagging thoughts: 'Must get Mint Royale's On the Ropes for less than full-price.' Sure, I could have paid A$30 (US$17) for it at home, or £12.50 (US$18) in London. But even though it's an import in the US and unlikely to show up anywhere for less than twenty-five bucks, I keep flipping through those clearance racks hoping that Tower or Virgin shipped over a crate of infectious indie-dance instead of Titanic soundtracks and are now looking to flog it to Australian tourists who listened to 'Don't Falter' too many times on the radio.

Still, it gives a focus to the flipping. And the clearance racks have so much to offer. So many cheesy album covers. So many bands you've never heard of. So many desperate oxymoronic combinations and permutations of words in search of a memorable band-name. The clearance racks should be compulsory viewing for dot-com marketing types: in the end it doesn't matter what you're called or what's on your cover if the music is crap.

But it's not all crap; that's the problem. Every now and then you'll see stuff you know isn't crap. Like the album from your A-list that you bought six months earlier at full price. (If anyone wants Bernard Butler's Friends and Lovers for three bucks, head to Amoeba on Haight St.) Or, if you're a tourist, albums by bands that are huge in your country that have stiffed in the States. Usually ones you can't stand, or whose albums you bought at home six months earlier.

The trouble is, the quality-to-crap ratio is only reasonable when the discount isn't that great. If you want real value, you have to head to the racks where mere mortals fear to flip: the one dollar racks.

So much choice. So many surprises. So much sturdy yet insulating building material.

I can never help myself: I always have to get something from the dollar racks. After all, it's so cheap: a dollar! Even with the Aussie dollar gasping for breath like a lungfish on life-support, that's still only the price of a bus ticket. Which would you rather, half a dozen CDs or a day-long magical mystery tour around the streets of Canberra? There's really no contest.

But what do you choose, when the bands are all completely unknown to you? I usually skip anything more than a year or two old on the grounds that if it hasn't shifted at bargain prices within a year, the Gods of Rock are sending me a sign; but that still leaves a lot of music. I'll start by grabbing anything that looks even vaguely intriguing, but when my arms get tired I put most of them back (to the annoyance of any watching store-owners), keeping only those whose... uh... band-names and covers I like. (Okay, marketing types, so everyone has his price. Mine is a dollar.)

Usually, I get my new CDs home and run them through the CD player only to find that the Gods of Rock had been intending to send me a sign, honest, but they were busy in studio eight jamming with Carlos Santana and laying down tracks for their Best Of album, due in stores December 11th. And I'm left with flashbacks to the time when my brother took his shiny new 45-rpm single of Elton John's 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues' out to the front yard and frisbeed it into the hedge.

But, as I said, this must be some kind of first, because on Saturday I brought home four one-dollar CDs, and: they're all good.

Admittedly, I already knew one of them was good. Kate Ceberano's Brave is getting a little old now (1989), but it's a great slice of pre-techno dance-pop from the renowned Aussie singer, with only a couple of less-than-stomping tracks.

The Avengers: The Album was surely suffering guilt by association, I figured; even if the movie is supposed to be awful, how can a soundtrack with new tracks by the Utah Saints, the Stereo MCs and Roni Size be all bad? And indeed, it's not bad at all. In fact The Verve Pipe's 'Blow You Away' is so brilliant I have an urge to go and pick up their albums (in Amoeba's clearance racks, of course).

The Drowners were completely unknown to me, but the cartoony Adobe Illustrator'd cover in bright orange must have appealed to the Zeldman aficionado in me. Fortunately, Is There Something On Your Mind? is a good guitar-based album with echoes of Matthew Sweet, Ben Folds, and other fine things.

Pocket Size's 100% Human had it all: good band-name and album title, clever cover (courtesy of Photoshop this time) showing a duo of sultry female singer and dork dude in sunglasses (thinks: electropop), and a 1999 release date. And yes, it's electropop, slightly retro-80s but still good, with some catchy tunes that I've never heard before.

On the one hand I'm pleased to discover this stuff at such a bargain basement price, and on the other it's depressing to think that there's so much good work languishing in the world's clearance racks.

It's even more depressing, though, to realise that the whole thing is just a big screaming metaphor hitting me right between the amps: one-dollar clearance racks = World Wide Web.


First published in Walking West, 11 September 2000.
This page: 6 March 2001.

©2000-01 Rory Ewins