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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

Tommy, can you hear a new opera?

October 29, 2006|Richard Cromelin

The Who

"Endless Wire" (Universal Republic)

* * 1/2

LEAVE it to the Who to reappear in this era of stunted attention spans and sort-and-shuffle music consumption with an album that includes an 11-song mini-opera, one that starts to make sense only if you've read "The Boy Who Heard Music," Pete Townshend's online novella on which it's based.

It's been 24 years since the Who, now down to Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey, issued an album of new material, and there's something edifying in their demands on their audience and in the stubbornness of their struggle with the same old devils: morality, God and man, the nature of reality, the mysteries of love, the role of rock.

Rather than establish any continuity with its distant predecessor, 1982's undistinguished "It's Hard," "Endless Wire" (in stores Tuesday), taps into classic Who motifs, self-referential to the point of self-homage.

The album is inconsistent -- sometimes impenetrable, sometimes enlightening -- but always engaged. The Dylan-folky "Man in a Purple Dress" packs a righteous vehemence, its disdain for those who pass judgment applied equally to mullah, priest and rabbi. "Black Widow's Eyes" is a chilling account of a man falling in love with a terrorist who's about to blow him up.

But Townshend, 61, and Daltrey, 62, and their accompanists have trouble making music to measure up to the thematic ambitions. Daltrey tries an assortment of vocal approaches to replace the powerful belting of his youth, and he largely holds his own. But the music itself shows signs of strain and labor when they try to mount the old anthemic grandeur and rock dynamism.

The Who isn't playing much of the new album on its nostalgia-oriented tour, which comes to the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, and it's not a record to reconfigure the band's legacy. But for a late, unexpected addition to the family, it's a handful.

-- Richard Cromelin

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