(All Album Reviews by AdmKirk)
Won't Get Fooled Again. That's pretty much the attitude I've had about a new Who studio album. How many times had that rumor been floated sine 1982's It's Hard? So I adopted the idea that it was all talk and Pete Townshend would never make another record with The Who.
The band has remained a formidable live unit, check out 1999's Blues to the Bush or the Royal Albert Hall album from 2002 but new Who studio recordings have been rare since 1982. There were a couple of tracks credited to The Who on Townshend's Iron Man LP in 1989 and one track from the Elton John tribute Two Rooms, a hot version of "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting". It may be my favorite version of that song ever.
By 2002 those rumors of a new Who record began to take a more serious tone. Work on a new studio album seemed to be picking up steam when bassist John Entwistle decided to pay a visit to Keith Moon just prior to beginning a tour with the band. This came just as the Who finally began to shake off the ill will of the groups 1989 tour by going back to what made The Who THE WHO. However, not even Big Johnny Twinkle's untimely demise would derail Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey from finally getting out a new Who album. First was a taste of what was to come with two songs from the Then & Now compilation, the excellent "Real Good Lookin' Boy" and the nearly excellent Entwistle tribute "Red Red Wine". More touring followed with the band augmented by bassist Pino Palladino, Rabbit Bundrick on keys, Pete's brother, Simon, on guitar and the amazing Zak Starkey on drums. Bundrick has worked with the band since 1979, Starkey since 1996. Starkey, in particular, has been key in the revitalization of The Who as a live act. His work features the flash of Moon, who gave him his first lessons, with the steadiness of his father, Ringo. No disrespect to Simon Phillips who toured with the Who in 1989 or Kenny Jones who sat behind the kit from 1979 through 1984, but Starkey is the best drummer the band has had since Moon. With these pieces in place The Who delivered Endless Wire in 2006.
So, how does one approach a record like this? There are only two original members and it's the first all-new studio record in 24 years and the first without John Entwistle, who not only contributed vocals and songs but the man's bass work is simply irreplaceable. You do what you know how to do and that's have Townshend write a mini-opera, bring in a brace of new songs to go along with it, get Daltrey to sing them and use the group of talented side men to make it all go.
The album opens with a quote from "Baba O'Riley" on "Fragments" which reprises later in shortened version in the Wire and Glass opera. The track features some classic Townshend chords using a tone that would not have been out of place on “Who are You”. The second song is the first of several songs on the album that could be looked back on as Who classics. "Man in a Purple Dress" is simple acoustic guitar with Daltrey's superb, nuanced vocal. Purportedly the song was influenced by Townshend's viewing of "The Passion of Christ" film, but the song is just as likely about his brush with the law following child pornography charges which he was found not guilty. Daltrey was a big supporter of Townshend during those days and his delivery of this song shows that commitment as Townshend's lyrics center on the justice system. Usually this kind of anger and attitude would mean tons of heavy guitar, pounding drums and galloping bass but, perhaps, this simple guitar and voice setting delivers more of that anger and attitude than a full band setting could reveal. This brings us to "Mike Post Theme". It comes on like big Who songs did in the past: a fat Townshend power chord with Daltrey bellowing away. This song "feels" like The Who and is one of my favorites on the record. Next up is perhaps the strangest song on the album, "In the Ether". Essentially piano, acoustic guitar and Townshend signing in an almost Tom Waits voice. The chord progression and melody remind me of Broadway, slightly. Not surprising since Townshend has done work on Broadway. The song has definitely grown on me over time. In fact much of this album is like that. On the first couple of listens it comes across as merely a good album by a band that's not so much a band now is it is an attitude. But with each passing listen certain things become more noticeable like the gorgeous chords from "In the Ether", the simple string section of "2000 Years", Daltrey's wonderful backing vocal on the extended version of the album's title cut. There are also several musical phrases through out the album that will remind one of other classic Who moments from any number of Who albums, but in particluar Quadrophenia and Who by Numbers. These moments, however deliberate, never last long. They are more of a tip of the hat to where they've been than trying to invoke glory days of the past.
"It's Not Enough" could be the best song on the album for those looking for a classic Who song. Some of Townshend's best guitar work, acoustic & electric, is here. Townshend's stinging lead work is throughout the track. One can picture Pete in mid-windmill with Daltrey slinging his mic for all it's worth. Entwistle would have had a field day with this one.
The first half of the album ends with a very short tune featuring Townshend's acoustic guitar and vocal. "Stand by Me" seems to be a thank you to all of those who have supported him over the last several years and could be aimed at Roger in particular.
The second half of the album, sides 3 & 4 for those of us who have the vinyl edition, consists of Townshend's mini-opera, "Wire & Glass". Even after hearing this opera 20 times now, I'm still not sure what it's about. It partly seems to be about being young and in a band and it also seems to hearken back to some themes Townshend brought up with the Lifehouse project as well. In any case, it kicks off with the powerful "Sound Round", possibly the fastest song The Who have ever recorded. Other highlights of the mini-opera include the album's title track, "We Got a Hit", & "Mirror Door", where Daltrey name checks every one from Brahms to the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band in one of those Townshend statements for the power of rock. The opera ends with the lovely "Tea & Theater" which seems to be a reaffirmation of the friendship between Daltrey and Townshend. The album itself ends with two longer versions of songs from the opera: "We Got a Hit" & "Endless Wire". Both are strong tracks deserving lengthier versions.
The album isn't perfect. I'd like to see the road band better represented. Drummer Zak Starkey is only on one cut due to prior commitments to Oasis. Bassist Pino Palladino is never quite loud enough in the mix for my tastes. Not every track squarely hits the mark but there is more than enough solid songs and strong performances to deserve its place as a Who album. It may not be The Who of 1967, 1982 or 1999, but, after all is said and done "Endless Wire" most importantly sounds like The Who. Let's hope they can keep it up and record another album or two in the NEAR future.