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Anthology anticlimax... I have to admit that I expected something a little more blustery out of Capitol to mark the conclusion of its three-part Beatles Anthology series. Rather, the two-CD Anthology 3 -- the final installment in the trilogy -- seems to have snuck its way into local stores October 29 with little fanfare, much in the same way Anthology 2 just kind of ... appeared.

But maybe it's for the best to let the music on Anthology 3 speak for itself; in the end, it does so more fascinatingly than either of the previous volumes. From the au naturel voice-and-guitar demos recorded in George Harrison's home in 1968 (of which the lead guitarist's "Piggies" is the most fully realized) to the generous selection of scrapped studio takes and live rehearsal run-throughs, Anthology 3 proves that, while the Beatles may have been drifting irreparably apart on a personal level, they had a pretty good gauge on where their music was headed, and their comfort and confidence in the studio is all over these CDs.

That single-minded ease is less evident on Anthology 2, which partially documents the Beatles' groundbreaking multitrack experiments with the in-studio progression of showpiece tunes such as "I'm Only Sleeping," "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus" from their Spartan basic tracks to something much greater than the sum of their "reductions" and overdubs. 2 stands as an intriguing compilation of "try-again"s and "what-if"s, documenting four musicians willing to fumble, bumble and humble themselves for the sake of progress.

Anthology 3, however, exhibits just how attuned to translating their muse the Beatles were toward the end, and how adept they were at recreating the ambitious ideas in their heads at even the most basic level. In turn, the finest moments on Anthology 3 are among its most simple: the soaring, Beach Boys-style harmonies of "Because" (from Abbey Road, not, as the Chronicle's Bruce Westbrook wrote in his recent review, from Let It Be), isolated from the instruments and enhanced for this collection; Harrison's sparse, overwhelming sad acoustic rendering of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; and the band's live-in-the-studio take of one of Lennon's most understated masterpieces, "Cry Baby Cry." These are just a few of Anthology 3's many revelations.

Of course, which anthology you favor most might well depend on which Beatles are closest to your heart: those of the jacket-and-tie, live-to-tape variety; those of the studio-wizard transformation that came later; or those of the button-down, back-to-basics persuasion near the end. Me, I've always preferred the third version, for reasons fairly typical. I was born in 1966, the year of Revolver, the Beatles' first definitive Abbey Road product, and had yet to switch to solid food when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band wowed the world in '67.

As it turns out, I happened upon the Fab Four through a mid-'70s back door left ajar by Paul McCartney and Wings, a somewhat embarrassing admission I liken to that of a priest confessing his introduction to God came via Jesus Christ Superstar. In any event, Wings' Band on the Run enjoyed a lengthy stay on my crummy record changer. The main attention-grabber for me at age eight was "Let Me Roll It," McCartney's impeccable Lennon impersonation and my first introduction to his former partner -- other than the confusing Plastic Ono Band 45s I had won at a local carnival.

From there, I backpedaled, and rest assured it was a long while before I got around to buying anything prior to A Hard Day's Night. But a spin through Anthology 1 should summon up slight pangs of regret within those of us who were far distanced from Beatlemania and its immediate fallout. After all, we missed out on something big, something monumental, something stadium hacks like ELO and Kansas couldn't quite duplicate, let alone the touring cast of Beatlemania.

That regret might turn to indifference upon realizing that the first half of Anthology 1 does little to disprove the commonly held contention that the Beatles started (like many great bands did) as a better-than-average cover band -- albeit one that bled attitude and had a wide-eyed reverence for all the right American artists, including Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. Perhaps most valuable for its scream-free live segments, 1 does make a strong case for Ringo Starr's indispensability to the Beatles, as the drums in much of volume one's pre-Ringo material run the gamut from mediocre to just plain embarrassing. To gauge Starr's hard-driving influence early on, simply compare original drummer Pete Best's inert, unfocused playing on 1's versions of "Hello Little Girl" and "Love Me Do" with Starr's inspired bashing on "I Saw Her Standing There" and the other performance tracks taken from the group's 1963 Swedish radio broadcast. Poor, unappreciated Ringo deserves the vindication, and he gets it here.

Despite an abundance of what I consider priceless moments, I'd feel uneasy recommending any of the anthologies to anyone but Beatles completists and rock history buffs -- doubtless there are a multitude of those. And if you're not among either of those groups, borrow the Anthology trilogy from a friend who is, if only to be reminded that the greatest rock and roll band on earth (sorry Mick and Keith) was also quite human.

Etc.... Thursday at Anderson Fair, a wake and "farewell picking party" is scheduled for Malcolm Smith, 44, who died suddenly October 27. The classically trained UH graduate was a fixture at local recording studios over the last two decades and played at Renaissance festivals throughout the country. Wednesday, the Houston Music Council hosts its annual alt-rock showcase at the Urban Art Bar featuring Childman, Coochie Rat, Gone Blind, Secret Sunday, the Lonely Guys and Krue.

-- Hobart Rowland

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