REVIEW FROM 2019 TOP TEN
For the first new Who album since 2006's Endless Wire, Pete Townshend recorded a series of "high quality demos", in which he played all the instruments and sang lead vocals. In the studio, guests like Zak Starkey, Pino Palladino, Joey Waronker, and Benmont Tench rerecorded Pete's original parts. Then, in a separate studio, Roger Daltrey recorded lead vocals replacing Pete's vocal. Surprisingly, the results sound way more like a band effort than you'd expect. Like Endless Wire, most of the songs aren't going to make you think it's the seventies Who again. Pete's a very different songwriter now, and the album reflects that. There's some of Pete's self-described "yaggerdang" guitar, but there's also a ballad, a bossa nova, some strings, and a few poppier numbers. Roger Daltey's voice sounds fabulous throughout the album. The problems he had 5-10 years ago appear to be behind him. The highlights are the powerful opener "All This Music Must Fade", the poppier "I Don't Wanna Get Wise", and Simon Townshend's contribution "Break The News".
The deluxe edition of the album adds three demos. The vinyl doesn't include those three demos, but does include a different one from 1966. Interestingly enough - Roger's been very vocal about not wanting bonus tracks released because he feels it waters down the album. On one hand, I see where he's coming from: If the songs weren't good enough for the main album, why release them now? On the other hand, the extra songs are terrific, and I'm not sure why they weren't included. They're better than a couple of songs that made the cut. Two appear to be part of the demos Pete recorded for the album. The third, "Got Nothing To Prove", has the vocal from a 1966 demo with fresh backing that sounds like it's right out of 1966. The vinyl bonus track, "Sand", is an untouched Pete demo from 1966 that's a must hear. It turned up on an acetate this year and a clip of about half the song showed up on YouTube (presumably to get interest in a sale). The full song is amazing.
The Who's promo ads for the album describe Who as "their best since The Who By Numbers", and Roger Daltrey called it their best album since Quadrophenia. I got thinking about that, and I realized I wasn't able to make that kind of comparison. At first, I assumed it was simply because the original run of Who albums (from My Generation to Who Are You) have been such long-time favorites and have been played so often that I couldn't make an impartial comparison. However, now I think I realize the problem: I end up feeling like I'm comparing apples to oranges. There are/were three lineups of the band in the studio (the original lineup, the lineup with Kenney Jones, and the Pete & Roger years), and Pete Townshend's songwriting seems to change a bit with each lineup. With the Kenney Jones lineup, Pete's songs seemed to get a little poppier, and in the two albums as a duo, Pete's songwriting has grown more eclectic with songs I'd never think of as "Who songs" appearing on the album.
So, is Who their best since The Who By Numbers or Quadrophenia? I wouldn't put in the same class as either of those albums, but I'm extremely biased. Who is far, far better than Endless Wire or It's Hard. Beyond that, I think you're just going to have to check it out and make your own call. If you're going to get hung up on the fact that it doesn't sound like Who's Next (or even Face Dances), then skip it. Otherwise, it's absolutely worth hearing.
REVIEW FROM 2020 TOP TEN
No, you're not reading the wrong year's review. After releasing a standard CD, a deluxe CD with three bonus tracks, and a vinyl edition with a different bonus track, 2019's Who has yet another version. This time around, the bonus tracks are the "Yaggerdang Remix" of "Beads On One String" and a seven-song live CD.
The "Yaggerdang Remix" doesn't sound like a remix, per se. To me, it sounds like an alternate version, maybe just an earlier version of the song with a different lead vocal. It's an interesting update, and it's available separately as a digital single.
The live CD, recorded at an acoustic show in a small club 2020, is a joy to listen to. Pete and Roger are clearly in a playful mood, chatting with the crowd and teasing each other. The short show has an interesting set list to boot: "Subsititue", "The Kids Are Alright" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are live staples, but they also play "Squeeze Box" and "Tattoo", both of which haven't had live performaces in 20 years or so. They also pull in two new songs, the brilliant "Break The News" and a version of "She Rocked My World" that improves on the album version.
If the new version only added "Beads On One String", I'd have recommended just buying the single. But the live CD is a blast. It's only about 30 minutes long, but it's absolutely worth picking up the new version for this.
- "All This Music Must Fade"
"I don't care / I know you're gonna hate this song". Who comes out of the gate with a ton of attitude and crashing power chords, and ends with a quiet but snarky vocal fade out from Pete. Kind of a cousin to "New Song" (which opens 1978's Who Are You). One of three classics on the album.
- "Ball And Chain"
Pete Townshend's 2015 best of, Truancy, included two new songs. One of which was "Guantanamo", which has been retitled "Ball And Chain". The song was reworked with louder guitar, a touch of Who's Next-style synths, and of course Daltrey's voice. I like Pete's original, but I think this is an improvement. Daltrey's vocal really makes it.
- "I Don't Wanna Get Wise"
More poppy than traditional Who, "I Don't Wanna Get Wise" seems like it would slot well on a Townshend solo album, except for Daltrey's vocal again, complete with a subtle nod to the stuttering on "My Generation" ("all those s-s-s-snotty young kids"). Pete's "Daft Punk" style background vocals seems to be a nod back to "Be Lucky". Not typical Who, but a classic nonetheless.
"Detour" uses the "Bo Diddley Beat" on the verses, which combines nicely with a smooth chorus. The title may be a call back to "The Detours", an early pre-Keith Moon version of the band. Took me a couple of listens to get into this one, but I like it.
- "Beads On One String"
(Pete Townshend / Josh Hunsacker)
The first big departure from The Who's typical sound, "Beads On One String" feels like a Townshend solo song in the verses with a more Who-ish chorus. Very pretty, and dramatic.
- "Hero Ground Zero"
A song seemingly built for The Who's "Moving On!" Tour, "Hero Ground Zero" couples Townshend power chords with sweeping orchestral backing. The Who played this on the tour before the album was out, and I'd seen it referred to in reviews as "The Hero Of Ground Zero". The song has nothing to do with 9/11; it's about an aspiring rock star.
- "Street Song"
"Street Song" has more Who's Next-style synths, although it reminds me more of "Fragments" from Endless Wire. Lighter, but still enjoyable.
- "I'll Be Back"
A striking change of pace: a bittersweet love song about reincarnation, with a Townshend lead vocal, string arrangement, harmonica, and a short vocal section bordering on rap. The least "Who-like" song on the album. I couldn't put my finger on why it didn't move me, but my wife nailed the description perfectly - sounds like lounge music. Schmaltzy. Weakest song on the album.
- "Break The News"
Simon Townshend's songwriting contribution to the album is the third classic on the album. It's definitely more "pop" than the Who's usual sound, but it's such a good song it doesn't matter.
- "Rockin' In Rage"
Like "Beads On One String", "Rockin' In Rage" has very different verses and choruses. The verses have strings and a nice Daltrey vocal. Once the chorus hits, Townshend's slashing power chords makes the title way more apt. A lyric clearly written from Daltrey's point of view.
- "She Rocked My World"
The second really dramatic change of pace. The bossa nova tempo doesn't really fit the Who's sound. Pete's experimenting on this one, and that's cool, but it kind of falls flat for me. The other weak track on the album.
DELUXE EDITION BONUS TRACKS
- "This Gun Will Misfire"
A leftover from the album sessions, this has Pete's demo with other musicians. Not sure why Daltrey opted out of this one. I think it's a better track than "I'll Be Back" or "She Rocked My World", and it would've sounded great with Roger's voice.
- "Got Nothing To Prove"
"Got Nothing To Prove" combines a Townshend lead vocal from a 1966 demo with fresh backing and orchestration styled to sounds like it could also have been recorded in 1966. Love it - it's completely charming and very well done. It doesn't fit in with the rest of the album at all, but I'm glad it's here.
- "Danny And My Ponies"
Another leftover from Pete's 2019 demos, this one is presented as is with no extra musicians. A gentle, folky song with a sad lyric only marred a bit by what seems like some Auto-Tune effects on Pete's voice at a few points. Another odd choice for a Who album, but I like it.
BONUS TRACK ON VINYL OR JAPANESE EDITION OF THE CD
"Sand" is another Townshend demo from 1966, but this one hasn't been altered. It's a great song and tailor-made for The Who, especially the explosive ending section. I'm absolutely floored the band didn't record this for The Who Sell Out. Would have loved to hear this with Roger, John, and Keith on it. A must-hear.