Three-song runs

Albums with three golden songs, consecutively tracklisted, that improve each other through their proximity. There’s got to be heaps of those, right?

This is a “build as I go” post. It’ll never be finished.

For an album to qualify for this post, these are the hurdles it’s got to clear:

  • The three songs must be tracklisted consecutively on the original version of their album (no best-ofs, compilations, or bonus tracks). For old-skool indie kids: yes, the last track of side 1 and the first track of side 2 count as consecutive.
  • Each song can be reasonably argued to be the best on the album. Two absolute killers with a quick filler in between? Disqualified.
  • The grouping and/or ordering of the songs makes them even better listening together than they are individually.

Björk: Cocoon, It’s Not Up to You, UndoVespertine (2001)

I might write more on this later, but I’m listening to this album all the way through for the first time in ages and daaamn. Cocoon is a whispered beauty – the standard-setter for a remarkably quiet and carefully constructed LP. It’s Not Up to You with its orchestral, choir-soaked build-up raises the album’s sonic peak, then Undo puts multiple Björks on vocals in front of Vespertine’s defining sound, percussive snips and clicks that tap out rhythms but leave so much space for…well, for a minimalist gem to have all the breathing space it needs.

Street Chant: Yr Philosophy, Stoned Again, and You Do The MathMeans (2010)

This is something I just wrote in the notes for Iain’s tracklist:

I’ve let Yr Philosophy, Stoned Again, and You Do The Math by Street Chant all run together because that’s the order they’re tracklisted on Means, and it’s one of the best three-song runs I know on any NZ album. (Or any album at all, quite possibly.)

These songs are tracks 5, 6, and 7. You’re welcome:

Over this run the tracks only get longer, which gives the feeling of a tightly-contained band becoming freer as they play. Yr Philosophy is a two-minute blast of punk; Stoned Again is a slower number of that perfect pop length which lets the band show off their controlled side without getting bogged down, then You Do the Maths lets the leash out past four minutes to really show what guitars, bass and drums can do.

The art changes with each track, too. The quick-fire blast Yr Philosophy is all thunderous drumming and harried guitar lines – frantic by design. Stoned Again is a post-party come down. You Do the Maths reinjects the energy, but builds in a sing-along chorus and a wonderful slow-down, wind-down bridge as a launching pad for the final attack. Everything that’s good about You Do the Maths is showcased in this live video from “a meeeaaaaan party” in 2009:

It’s not just that Street Chant have three bloody good tracks here; it’s the way they react to each other. A cracker of an opening, then a confident quiet moment, and a finish even bigger than the bang we started with. Wow.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Leave the Driving, Carmichael, and BanditGreendale (2003)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s critically and commercially unpopular Greendale, which I love, hits stupidly great heights through tracks 4-6.

The album tells a story of a small-town family (the Greens of Greendale and yes, I can see why not everyone thinks this is Young’s best work). In Leave The Driving, cousin Jed gets pulled over at a bad time (“glovebox was full of cocaine / trunk was full of weed”). Over seven minutes, the song explores two moments: A “split-second, tragic blunder” of a decision that Jed makes while sitting in his car and—he doesn’t make a great choice—a visit to his jail cell a few hours later. Through it all, Crazy Horse’s small-town blues toe the line from an easy roadtrip to devastation. In between the jump from the Old Coast Highway to Jed’s cell, it’s easy to miss the line in which Young tells you to “leave the driving to us”. It’s good advice. The story has somewhere to go.

From Leave the Driving, Young takes you straight into the home and workplace of the policeman, Carmichael. The lyrics are mostly dialogue of his wife, her friends, and his workmates – a clever reflection after you’ve just been eavesdropping on the jailhouse conversation between Jed and his dad. (Come to think of it, the initial interactions between Jed and Carmichael were partly told through dialogue as well: “‘Driver’s license and registration’ / said the officer with his flashlight…”.) None of the lines are momentous—they’re ordinary things that build detail into a very unordinary picture, tying Jed and his victim together in a cruelly human way.

Carmichael is mournful, 10 minute epic which, unlike the previous track, looks over more than a year’s worth of aftermath. We’re in no hurry to get through things here: there’s a guitar solo before a single lyric. When finally the vocal kicks in, Carmichael’s unnamed wife talks with him about their happiest times together, but with the blunt conclusion that “dammit Carmichael, you’re dead now / and I’m talking to the wall”. Speech lets Young tell other people’s stories in the most straightforward way. There’s no pretty poetry. And while you’re still soaking in the lives of the upstanding officer and the down-on-his-luck, desperate drug-dealer, you’re hit with Bandit.

The first time you hear Bandit begin it sounds like a bum note. Neil Young drops his E string much lower than it was ever built to go and in a growlish whisper lays out all the cards of an unnamed Green brother. He’s old. He’s broke. He’s working with dope, despite the events that just unfolded for Jed and Carmichael. The entire song takes place inside one man’s head: inner dialogue, not conversation. Question is, who put all those thoughts here? It’s a contemplative song, written higher than Young can easily sing but hey, if that’s the way the song is when you fish it out of the air, that’s the way you lay it down. And as that E string rattles around like a broken bass, you hear the hope that’s in the air too. “Some day / you’ll find / everything you’re looking for”.

The rest of Greendale suffers in comparison to this trio (and, towards the end, from a lack of Greens with tales as striking as these ones). At no other point in his decades of recording music, with or without Crazy Horse, has Neil Young matched this three-song run for intensity and quality.

 Elbow: Station Approach, Picky Bugger, and Forget MyselfLeaders of the Free World (2005)

The opening trio on Elbow’s best album.

Start with the similarities: All three of these tracks are set up rhythmically before they go anywhere else. Station Approach rattles the album in on a train-like tambourine. Four loops of a standard rock beat – then another four with just a little guitar over the top – set up Picky Bugger. The bass-drum-thumps and tuned clickety-clacks that bring in Forget Myself are spaced far enough apart to leave room for a looping guitar melody, with plenty of remaining space to build into. And build, all three of these tracks do.

It’s a difficult tracklisting trick to line up three songs that share a basic pattern (starting sparse rhythmical, then getting bigger and melodic) without taking away from that pattern’s effect. It’s a songwriting achievement to put that pattern to three uses so distinct that grouping the songs together makes you look even better as musicians.

These three set up a story, too. Lyrically, Leaders of the Free World leans on a return home to Manchester, but not to a settled personal life. Through these opening songs Guy Garvey sings of his train journey home pulling in, and the welcome familiarity of the place (“coming home I feel like I / designed these buildings I walk by” – Station Approach). He’s soon out drinking (“thinking and sinking the wine / kicking up mischief and feeding the fire” – Picky Bugger), drifting into the weekend crowds (“pacing Piccadilly in packs again” – Forget Myself) and reflecting too much on how a bouncer isn’t too different to a god (“The man on the door has a head like Mars / … / He’s got that urban genie thing going on” – Forget Myself). This isn’t a concept album or a properly coherent narrative, but it is a break-up album (or maybe a breaking-up album) with a thoughtful narrator who knows that he’s the bad guy. Hell, he’s happy to be home where he’s drinking to forget himself. Grim.