ENDLESS WIRE – The Who (Universal Republic)
First off, a caveat: I abhor change, especially when it comes to music, perfectly content with a band finding a niche or particular sound which tickles all the right synapses and then riding it for all it’s worth for 20 or 30 odd years.  Routine brings me a warm and fuzzy feeling deep down inside, the next best thing I reckon to still being in the womb.  Surprises make my stomach churn.  My reaction to surprises makes the stomachs of others churn.  Just ask Eddie and The Hot Rods guitarist Richard Holgarth, who took umbrage – and expressed it in writing - at my less-than-enthusiastic review of their last album “Better Late Than Never.”

The deaths of Keith Moon and John Entwistle mandated that for Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the music MUST change (no pun intended).  Despite the best efforts of ex-Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones as The Who’s career reached its nadir nearly 25 years ago with first “Face Dances” and then “It’s Hard,” it was obvious from the start he just wasn’t built for the long haul.  Unfortunately, the “seeking employment” sections of most trade rags just aren’t packed to bursting with musicians who play “lead drums.”

And Entwistle’s decision to board a thrill ride to Sin City, a hooker and a bump of cocaine stowed in his carry-on luggage, ensured that should you stick a meat temperature gage into either of the survivors or the two new songs they wedged onto 2004’s “Then and Now!” compilation, it would indicate they’re done like dinner.
It’s never a good sign when a singer proclaims himself an alchemist in the liner notes, an interpreter of lyrics, drawing wild comparisons to the Sirs Gielgud and Guinness, especially when said singer once stalked stages as the fringed-buckskin, alpha-male, front-man prototype, topping an unofficial “Creem” magazine poll of his peers back in the day as the toughest little son of a bitch in the biz, showing no qualms about settling inter-band squabbles with a quick poke to the prodigious nozzle of the guitarist or whoever else happened to get in the way.  Oops, thought this was a Who album, not the latest from Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf.  

If seeing a 10-part mini-opera in the track listing of a Who album set your toes a-curling, you’re in for a rough ride with “Endless Wire,” their first new studio album since 1982.  “Wire & Glass,” the latest instance of Townshend caught in flagrante delicto with his concept muse is, as expected, complicated but not completely without merit except when taken as a whole, when it rubs elbows with Yes, Pink Floyd, and Genesis at their head-scratching worst.  Two of the short snippets, “Endless Wire” and “We Got a Hit,” also presented here in extended versions, certainly rival anything the band released during the Jones era, but the whole thing limps home with closing segment “Tea & Theatre,” the guy responsible for the hackle-raisingest scream ever in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” reduced to politely requesting company for a cuppa, the aural equivalent of Secretariat being put out to stud.

Lyrically, the once tightly-guarded borders of drink, drug gobbling, and sex have given way to spirituality, truth, and a whole lot of love, resulting in the dourest album in the Who catalog outside of “By Numbers,” a few folk songs (“A Man In a Purple Dress,” “Two Thousand Years,” “God Speaks of Marty Robbins”) right at home on Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s 1977 “Rough Mix” album, the remainder completely unmemorable now that Entwistle and Moon have been replaced by drummer Peter Huntington, bassist Pino Palladino, and a string quartet, Townshend tinkering in the studio and filling in the rest of the holes in the sonic fabric himself.
About the only thing that keeps these two pensioners from flat lining completely is a bit of the old bluster in “Mirror Door” and “Mike Post Theme,” Daltrey summoning the leather lungs to snarl about prayer and sex over a whirlwind of power chords.  The primitive synthesizer from “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” make a very brief and teasing return at the beginning of album-opener “Fragments,” but are quickly shuffled aside and never heard from again.

There’s a live DVD bundled here of Daltrey and Townshend performing with Zak Starkey (drums), Palladino, John Bundrick (keyboards), and Simon Townshend (guitar), but about a minute into “I Can’t Explain,” any hopes I had these guys might strike a blow for those of us old enough to remember 8-track tapes crash and burn on a stage in France, the singer sounding like he’s either ready for or just come from an oxygen tent, the camera not even on him as he wheezes out that once-defiant scream as “Won’t Get Fooled Again” comes to a climax, Townshend politely demurring to execute the dramatic deep knee slide from “The Kids Are Alright.”    
Rock is dead they say, long live rock…
- Clark Paull