Record shopping usually goes: Enter a store, find something you think you'll like, and buy it.
How boring is that?
Desperate for anything to snap us out of our pandemic rut, we recently hit up Zia Records on Mill Avenue for one of its enigmatic Mystery Bags.
For only $4.99 plus tax, adventurous listeners get a sealed, opaque bag containing 10 records that didn't even sell on clearance. (This didn't bode well for the quality of the offerings.)
What we got for our fiver truly was a mixed bag: some bland, dated albums we could take or leave, but stuck among the dross were a few records we were glad to discover and plan to hang on to.
Here are the contents of our Zia Mystery Bag, in the order we listened to them.
George Howard, Love Will Follow (1986)
Love Will Follow, the fourth album from saxophonist Howard, fits the textbook definition of smooth jazz. Largely instrumental, the album conjures visions of elevators and awkward love scenes on late-night cable. Howard died of colon cancer in 1998 at just 41; we can only speculate how his style would have evolved in the 21st century.
Favorite Song: "It Can't Be Forever." It's a little more uptempo than other songs on the album, with some nice vocals.
Keep or Release to the Universe: We respect the musicianship, but this isn't staying in our collection.
Joan Baez, David's Album (1969)
This album, recorded as a gift for Baez's husband before he reported to prison for draft resistance, is largely composed of hymns and folk tunes. Baez's soulful voice brings new meaning to old songs.
Favorite Song: "Rock Salt and Nails." Baez's cover of Utah Phillips' classic is a gorgeous depiction of heartbreak.
Keep or Release to the Universe: Keep. We're counting this as a solid find.
The Limeliters, Leave It to The Limeliters (1965)
Did you ever see A Mighty Wind? The Limeliters, a folk group formed in 1959, would fit right in in Christopher Guest's mockumentary about slightly ridiculous folk groups. This album has everything, from terrible Spanish accents to terrible Italian accents, as well as casual misogyny and terrible French accents. The liner notes say this is a tongue-in-cheek album. I certainly hope so.
Favorite Song: "My Love Doth Walk the Picket Line." This ballad about a guy who hasn't seen his girlfriend much lately because she's too busy protesting feels ... strangely relevant in 2020.
Keep or Release to the Universe: We're going to keep this around to terrorize houseguests.
Valerie Carter, Just a Stone's Throw Away (1977)
Carter already had been a member of the folk group Howdy Moon, but Just a Stone's Throw Away was her first full-length solo album. Though the appeal of her lovely voice can't be denied, most of the songs on the album don't have much to distinguish themselves from one another.
Favorite Song: "Face of Appalachia." Carter's cover of Lowell George and John Sebastian's elegy for that particular region of the country is haunting and mournful.
Keep or Release to the Universe: We liked it more the longer we listened, but we're going to take a pass on keeping it.
John Dawson Read, A Friend of Mine Is Going Blind (1975)
This was the first we'd heard of this British singer-songwriter. A Friend of Mine Is Going Blind is Read's debut album, and it's filled with the kind of sensitive, thoughtful songs we didn't know we were into.
Favorite Song: "All the Time in the World." It's lovely and deeply felt without being maudlin.
Keep or Release to the Universe: To be determined. It's growing on us.
Joan Armatrading, Joan Armatrading (1976)
Joan, where have you been all our life? Her self-titled third album is full of songs that express longing for love and connection in a strong and self-assured way.
Favorite Song: "Love and Affection." It's assertive and sultry at the same time.
Keep or Release to the Universe: Absolutely keep. This is the best pull from our Mystery Bag.
Joan Baez, Joan Baez/5 (1964)
This one is nothing if not eclectic; Joan Baez/5 has covers of tunes by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, plus opera arias, traditional ballads, and more. It succeeds in showing Baez's versatility.
Favorite Song: "When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin.'" We love a good traditional folk ballad about birds.
Keep or Release to the Universe: We don't see this one sticking around, honestly.
Janis Ian, Janis Ian (1967)
It's hard to believe this album was released when Ian was only 16 years old. Even on this debut, her songwriting abilities are formidable.
Favorite Song: "Go 'Way Little Girl." This biting indictment of rape culture, gender double standards, and the repression of female sexuality is impressive even now. We can't imagine what the response was 50 years ago.
Keep or Release to the Universe: Our shelf space is limited, and we don't see ourselves reaching for this again, so we're going to let it go.
Rita Coolidge, Nice Feelin' (1971)
Coolidge's second album has plenty of good stuff on it, from the wistful "You Touched Me in the Morning" to a cover of Bob Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine."
Favorite Song: "Lay Your Burden Down." It's got a powerful, spiritual feeling.
Keep or Release to the Universe: This one really clicked with us. It's going to stay.
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Joan Baez, Gulf Winds (1976)
Again with the Joan Baez albums. Apparently, she's not a big seller. Compared to the other two Joan Baez albums we listened to earlier in the evening, this one was rather bland and didn't do much for us.
Favorite Song: "Sweeter for Me." A lot of the songs on Gulf Winds sound similar, but we liked the melody and the deeply personal lyrics of this one.
Keep or Release to the Universe: Meh. We now know there are far better Baez albums out there.