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Mixed-bag effort offers flashes of the past

The Who.jpg

The Who is undoubtedly one of the premier bands and concert acts in rock history, and arguably only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones can compare in terms of influence and quality of output.

Roughly 24 years after its last new album, The Who is back with Endless Wire (Universal Republic), and it’s difficult to judge it within the context of the band’s history.

Endless Wire, the first Who album without its original bassist, the late John Entwistle, has numerous echoes of past successes and failures, and it remains a mixed bag of good songs, some sketchy Roger Daltrey vocals, some dated but well-intentioned attempts to sound relevant and some steady rock-hard compositions that are few and far between.

There are nine studio tracks, all penned by guitarist Pete Townshend. “Fragments” opens the disc with the revved-up opening bars of “Baba O’Riley,” one of the band’s signature songs quelled from 1971’s landmark Who’s Next. The opening lines “Are we breathing out/or breathing in” indicate to its audience that The Who is alive and well, the music indicating the speedy passage of time.

The second tune, “Man in a Purple Dress,” slows down so Townshend can vent his frustrations on religious attitudes (and in an off-hand way take a swipe at Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ film). “Mike Post Theme” is a genuine rocker, with Daltrey emoting “Emotionally we’re not even old enough,” a commentary on the complexity of growing old. He insists “everything is all right/we prayed today” and “we have to face/the truth sometime.”

“Black Window’s Eyes” is another rock standout (the only one with drummer Zak Starkey, the band’s regular drummer for live concerts), a love song written while staring into the face of death.

Townshend’s gift for lyrics is evident throughout the album. He always was the creative force behind the band, writing a majority of the songs, and his guitar work is exemplary among his peers. Entwistle’s quirky contributions are sorely missed on Endless Wire, as they worked well as a counterpoint to Townshend’s personal lyricism.

Entwistle’s replacement, Pino Palladino, plays a steady but uninspired bass. Session player Peter Huntington does a fine job handling almost all of the drum work. Townshend also does some drum programming on the disc; his brother Simon handles backing guitar. Longtime Who associate John “Rabbit” Bundrick also makes contributions.

But the deaths of drummer Keith Moon (in 1978) and Entwistle (in 2002) are irreplaceable to the authentic Who sound. And Daltrey’s vocals sound weathered and distant, although his courage in going on with pipes that are obviously rusty is to be commended. His contribution to the band at this point is far below the pre-1982 years.

There are many factions that believe that this is really a Townshend album in disguise, with Daltrey as guest vocalist. This is never more evident than in the mini-opera Wire and Glass, a tired effort about a group of kids getting together to form a band, but in the end they wind up disillusioned.

The seven live cuts (from a concert in Lyon, France, on July 17, 2006) reveal The Who to still be energetic and, at times, cutting-edge. These are the real highlights of the disc, a selling point the band was no doubt aware of.

Endless Wire, which also includes a bonus DVD from the aforementioned concert, is a noble effort, but overwhelmed by the expectations of one of rock’s genuine icons to break new ground.

— By Donald Gavron