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Just Who's big idea is this, anyway?

Ben Wener
The Orange County Register

It's fitting -- and almost necessary -- that Universal Music has re-released Pete Townshend's solo work. And I mean all of it -- the breakthrough of "Empty Glass," inscrutable concepts like "White City" and "The Iron Man," three double-dipped cones of "Scoop."

It's a marketing exec's ploy, of course: "Maybe we can sell a few copies of catalog titles if we ship `em out just before Halloween," the arrival date of "Endless Wire," the first album of new Who material since 1982's "It's Hard."

I doubt that prayer will be widely answered. But focusing the reissue campaign on Townshend's brave but spotty history and not the same ol' repackaged Who classics is at least telling. Though only handfuls of scattered demos on these albums have anything to do with one of the greatest rock bands ever, Townshend's botched batch nonetheless reaffirms his creative dominance in all Who matters.

As neither he nor roaring mouthpiece Roger Daltrey ever lets us forget, Townshend is the brain behind the machinery. And with the Who reduced to the Two, a new disc is essentially a Townshend solo shot with Daltrey as guest star.

The grand conceptualist even admits as much in the liner notes to "Endless Wire," thanking Eric Clapton for "firm and unwavering advice (that) hardened my resolve to make this record on my own, in my own way, to the bitter end -- only delivering it to the Who's touring band when I was certain it was properly realised."

Townshend even plays the majority of its instruments -- mandolin, banjo, violin, subtle drums on the dynamic "Mike Post Theme." And he sings almost as much as Daltrey, an unfortunate development considering his laughable Tom Waits impersonation on "In the Ether." (He means to personify his aging "Lifehouse" protagonist Ray High, I get it. Still sounds awful, though.)

But here's the good news: He and his sidemen have done a bang-up job emulating the might of the Who in its prime.

Some nods to the past are a tad too obvious, like the "Baba O'Riley" arpeggios that swirl in "Fragments." But the muscularity of Townshend's guitar, the terse interplay with roiling drums, the surging melodies, his sweeter counterpart to Daltrey's burly bluster -- it doesn't matter who is or isn't here, nothing has sounded this Who-like since Keith Moon died.

Yet to comprehend Townshend's intention, either in the diffuse, album-closing "mini-opera" "Wire & Glass" or the nine detached songs that precede it, you really have to do your homework. Even then, you're not apt to figure it out.

I confess I haven't read Townshend's unfortunately titled novella, "The Boy Who Heard Music," offered for free at his Web site (www.petetownshend.co.uk). Doing so might -- I repeat, might -- clarify the beyond-sketchy narrative of "Wire & Glass," intended to score the book, which itself is the third installment of Townshend's "Lifehouse" chronicle.

Surely ardent Who fans will recall the travails of "Lifehouse," the project that will not die. Its germination began as "Tommy" was being unveiled in 1969. Townshend's inability to actualize it led to its strongest pieces forming the seminal "Who's Next," while others (like "Pure and Easy") turned up on his 1972 solo debut, "Who Came First."

Undeterred by failure, Townshend returned to the concept in 1993, adding to the confusion with his album "Psychoderelict," which introduced the burned-out `60s-rocker antihero (and alter ego?) Ray High.

High returns in "Wire & Glass." He's now ensconced in a padded cell, where he watches (or perhaps imagines) three youngsters form a band, score a hit single and eventually try to realize High's/Townshend's idea to "turn everyone into music" via a massive (but tragic) concert in Central Park.

It doesn't make sense to me, either, and the plot Townshend describes in press materials can't be detected in the songs -- not surprising, seeing as the dots of his concept albums are always impossible to connect. This one, however, makes "Tommy" seem as clear-cut as an episode of "CSI."

And yet it sounds like something important. Townshend remains a smoke-and-mirrors master, capable of gripping attention with compelling music yet never actually reaching a cogent point. So it plays well, though not as convincingly as the concise songs ahead of it, including three inspired by "The Passion of the Christ."

The best of those, "A Man in a Purple Dress," is a scathing screed against robed figures -- judges, mainly; it reads as an indictment of powers that be who wrongly charged Townshend as a child-porn pervert in 2003. Equally stirring: "Black Widow's Eyes," about infatuation striking amid a terrorist siege; "It's Not Enough," inspired by Godard's "Les Mepris"; and "God Speaks of Marty Robbins," in which Townshend, as the Almighty, wakes just before Creation and figures it's worth the trouble to form the universe, if only to hear the country great sing.

Then there's the dashed-off 1:36 of "You Stand by Me." It's tender, moving, confident -- proof that for all his ambition, Townshend is often at his best when he ditches Big Ideas and simply speaks from the heart.

That's what made "Empty Glass" so rewarding. It's what makes "The Who by Numbers" a gem worth discovering.

It's what "Endless Wire" could use a whole lot more of.

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