Saturday, July 3, 2010

Best three songs in a row - Pt. 10

Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine:

Album: The Beatles (aka The White Album)
Three songs: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Martha My Dear," and "I'm So Tired"
Comments: One might suspect that, regarding my mission with these posts, The White Album would present some difficulties. After all, it's long and sprawling, needing 30 songs and four sides to get from start to finish. That's a wealth of room for strong stretches of music. And most Beatles fans would agree that, bloat and all, it is a very rewarding album, even uniquely so. A staple observation from White Album reviews is that, on some level, the double LP benefits from its excesses and indulgences; they're a source of charm. And who could really imagine the experience of The White Album without all those animal songs, or with "Revolution 1" but not "Revolution 9?" We accept it as it is and enjoy it as it is.

That doesn't mean we enjoy the whole of it, though. It's an inescapable fact that not all of The White Album's oddities and affected amusements (many of them essentially solo compositions, a product of the band's disunity) are very satisfying, and some are downright masturbatory. When you combine these songs - the bad and the ugly - with the good, it can make for uneven listening. For instance, disc one tracks like "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," Wild Honey Pie," "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," and "Piggies" often just seem to be in the way, disrupting the momentum whipped up by the many outstanding entries around them. Buried amidst the 17 songs of that disc is an efficiently masterful album; what The Beatles left for us was something longer and perhaps more memorable and interesting, but also eccentric to a fault. Conversely, disc two, which for the most part lacks highlights on par with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and "Martha My Dear," could not function well on its own. In a way, it feeds off the strength of disc one. Though I really dig songs like "Sexy Sadie," "Long, Long, Long," and "Cry Baby Cry" the only true classic there may be Paul's blistering, bludgeoning "Helter Skelter."

These are some of the thoughts that occupied me as I started to consider The White Album's three best in a row; and in the end, they helped make my task fairly easy. Eliminating all of disc two right off the bat obviously narrowed the field quite a bit. Its sole contender, "Sexy Sadie"-"Helter Skelter"-"Long, Long, Long," isn't without substantial merit, but it wasn't hard to see that some combination of songs on disc one would prove superior. Again, disc one is the better of the two, boasting a handful of classics and some very solid second-tier tracks. For my purposes, it didn't hurt that three of its lesser songs - "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Wild Honey Pie," and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" - come one after the other. Mind you, they still have a disruptive presence, but it's not broadly distributed. Pushing them to the side left these in the running: "Back in the U.S.S.R"-"Dear Prudence"-"Glass Onion" and then everything from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" to "Julia," the concluding track of disc one. In other words, a bevy of superlative music remained. But that didn't mean that I struggled to arrive at my pick.

First of all, when you look at the songs that populate disc one, you find that "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" - a song so very much and only itself - is just staring at you, not letting you even entertain its exclusion. It's the anchor of tracks 1-17 and possibly the best song on all of The White Album. Critically, it's also surrounded by other high-caliber tunes. George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" precedes; Paul's "Martha My Dear" follows; and "I'm So Tired," which on some days is my favorite Beatles song period, comes after the latter. That's possibly the best four-song stretch in the hallowed discography under discussion. But keeping it to three meant deciding between "Weeps" and "Tired." An earnest, darkly balladic guitar-burner versus a piquant, small-bore cry for sanity. Acknowledging my bias, I still went with "Tired." The way it captures John in a particular moment and in a particular state of mind is absorbing. And that vocal, which "caresses and crackles, soothes and snarls," stands as one of his finest.

Thus, "Happiness"-"Martha"-"Tired" emerged from that foursome, and it took the prize over other combinations like "U.S.S.R."-"Prudence"-"Onion" and "Dear"-"Tired"-"Blackbird." Though I wrote at length about it, the choice (again) struck me as the obvious one.

No comments: