Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rubber Revolving Soul

I've been listening to a lot of the Beatles lately. I go through cycles and phases with different artists, but the Beatles are one of those groups that come back into heavy rotation every year or so - perhaps I should say heavier rotation - but regardless, it is not uncommon that there be a few weeks where I am likely to listen to one or more Beatles albums a day.

The other day on my way to work I listened to Rubber Soul and really enjoyed it, but put on Revolver immediately after and once again came to the conclusion I have long held: Revolver is just clearly a better album - it is a more impressive set of songs. This is not to say that Rubber Soul is bad. It is still great, but Revolver is better.

In truth, they really work well together - not quite bookends, but more like dividing line, as Rubber Soul despite a few touches that fore-shadow the coming Beatles' sound, has more in common with the older sound, the old rock n'roll sound that came along with covers of Chuck Berry songs and "Twist and Shout." This is not to say that "A Hard Day's Night" and "HELP!" don't have inklings of that later sound and aren't great records in their own right, but it is pretty clear to me that "Revolver" pushes towards what would come in their more psychedelic and experimental phase - stuff on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "The Beatles" (aka "The White Album").

Aside from the sound of the albums (they both sound great and have those classic Lennon/McCartney synergetic harmonies), I think part of the issue is I find the songs on Rubber Soul to be lyrically simpler and more problematic. Sure, a song like "Drive My Car" is cute, what with its simulated car/traffic sounds in the staccato delivery of some of the lyrics ("But I've got a dri-ver and that's a start!") and the sexual innuendo of the hook - and, "Norwegian Wood" is a classic song, certainly inspired by Dylan in ambiguous content (though not quite in sound like Help's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" - more of a folky Birds sound).

But then there are songs like "You Won't See Me," which are not much more than boring in my estimation - though I can't help but think of Lennon's backing "Ooh la la" as kind of sarcastic. "Nowhere Man" is similarly boring, both melodically and in content. This may be a case of it feeling dated in message with its misplaced optimism. The song just seems like a particular product of a 60s mentality of "consciousness" that really doesn't say anything in and of itself and seems to have never changed.

"The Word" may suffer from a similar problem, but I love the way it sounds - the harmonies, the guitars, the shaker.

I will leave aside the banality of "Michelle." Perhaps if they had gotten Ringo to sing it, it might have been salvaged by kitschiness. "What Goes On" works because of that countrified sound that goes along with Ringo's voice. And "I'm Looking Through You" is a classic break-up song. Love it. I love McCartney's lead vocals and the little organ/guitar licks between the verses.

I usually skip over "In My Life" - some people list this as their favorite Beatles' song, but it seems too treacly, what with the sentiment and the fake clavichord. I have never liked it.

But most problematic of all these songs has to be "Run for Your Life." Whoa. I mean, I love the song - The sound of it, that is, but from the very first line "Well, I'd rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man" it is kind of cringe-worthy. What amazes me most, I think, is not just the blatant violence towards women that lyrics suggest, but how acceptable it really is in a mainstream pop song. The title of the song becomes even more ominous when you consider how many women have to do just that, run for their lives, from men who claim to love them. "Baby, I'm determined / And I'd rather see you dead." Of course, the acceptability of violence towards women in music ("Hey Joe," anyone?) and in our culture (many cultures. . . most cultures?) is nothing new and definitely not a thing of the past (Chris Brown, anyone?) - but I have to shake my head when I think about how many years of my youth I heard "Run for your Life" and similar songs without thinking twice about their message.

Revolver, on the other hand, is full of song after great song. Sure, some are better than others, but overall I find them to be more challenging and experimental in content and construction. From the bizarre intro to "Taxman" to the strings of "Eleanor Rigby" to the east Indian sitar intro and drone of "Love You To" and the background tapeloops of "Tomorrow Never Knows," Revolver does things almost none of the songs on Rubber Soul do, and when it does, it does them better.

"I'm Only Sleeping" is a great example, the echoey jangling guitar accented with backward splices of guitar playing (and a "solo" done in similar style) in a song about nothing more than sleeping, not a cliched love song (not that there aren't love song cliches on this albums). It is one of my all time favorite Beatles songs and has a nice taste of Paul McCartney's understated and underrated bass-playing. (oh, and I love the background "oooohs").

Sure, "Here, There and Everywhere" is one of the boring tracks and "Yellow Submarine" is an overplayed kiddie track, but that can be forgiven - few records are perfect (and no Beatles records are, it is just that for the most part even their warts are productive in the broader view) - but then there is another of my all-time faves, "She Said She Said," which opens with one of those classic Beatles sound guitar riffs, has a weird high-pitched whine, and lyrics inspired by tripping on acid with Peter Fonda. I love the weird lurching rhythmic delivery of those lyrics accentuated with awkward repetition of the same words.

"Good Day Sunshine" is sneakily fantastic song - deceptive - but I love the Beach Boys-drenched harmonies/repetition of "good day sunshine" and the pianola strolling piano sound. McCartney, however, supposedly credits The Lovin' Spoonful - but Pet Sounds came out in May of '66 and Revolver was recorded through June of '66 (and released in August, which blows me away) and Pet Sounds is Paul's favorite album - "Good Vibrations" influence can be heard in there.

"For No One" might be a sad love song and the melody may be a bit hackneyed, but the french horn is lovely and the approach to the subject is as sweet and heartfelt as "Dr. Robert" is a bouncy rock n'roll tune with some of the most "classic" sounding Lennon/McCartney harmonies (on "You're a new and better man / He helps you to understand / He does everything he can") - a song about their doctor friend who introduced folks to acid.

I almost didn't mention "I Want to Tell You" (I have not mentioned every single song on these records), but I figured that George deserves more attention, and it includes not only a classic Beatles riff, but the almost dissonant harmonies and the pounding two-feel piano rhythm is that kind of jerky-awkwardness that makes the song come alive and helps to underscore the content, explaining the inability of the song's speaker to quite express what it is they want to say about how he feels about a relationship.

"Got To Get You Into My Life" is brought to life by the horns and one of the best pop song hooks of all time. And yeah, those "Ooohs" at the beginning of the lines that lead to the powerful chorus are fantastic. It is perfect example of why Paul McCartney is one of my favorite songwriters of all time and really (kind of) my favorite Beatle.

Aside: This song will always remind me of a very rainy day in New Paltz in 1996 or '97. I was shopping in town and two guys were ducked under a store awning, one with a walkman, obviously listening to this song and singing along loudly in a nice voice, when suddenly the other guy starts singing a harmony with him and I walked up and spontaneously started a third harmony. We just stood there and sang the song aloud, beaming and having a great time and when we were done, nodded to each other with a smile and went our own way.

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is another of my faves (and I guess that makes Revolver win over Rubber Soul right there, more of my favorite Beatles songs come from that record than probably any other). As I said before, it includes all sorts of tape loops and the voice is amplified through a speaker normally used for an organ - just the perfect example of the kind of successful experimentation that makes Revolver the great record it is. And I love that opening line, "Turn off your mind / Relax and float down stream".

I don't have much to say in conclusion, except to reiterate, listening to these two records back to back, Revolver stands out as the clearly better one - though there is still a quality that resonates in both of them (having been recorded and released so closely) that gives the impression that they are a kind of double-album (and I have seen an interview with George Harrison where he said as much, claiming that he often got confused as to which songs were on which). It may not be fair to try to make the distinction I am making here, but I have made it anyway - and the truth is that while I will likely listen to both these records countless more time in my life, I will probably listen to Revolver a hell of a whole lot more.

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