Sunday, 27 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #44: The Very Best Of The Smiths (2001)

The Smiths' second and final entry comes in the shape of another compilation, released in 2001 and widely rubbished by both the band and the music press. After the release of Hatful Of Hollow (1984, #97), The Smiths began to crest a wave of success, both commercial and critical, which would last until the end of their career. Their third album overall, Meat Is Murder (1985), was more stridently political in its social commentary and attacks on modern Britain, reaching #1 on the U.K. Album Chart. The follow-up, The Queen Is Dead (1986) produced a spate of hit singles and has become regarded as their best work. But not all was well in the band; the exhaustive touring schedule, coupled with bassist Andy Rourke's heroin addiction, had caused tempers to fray. After the release of the more experimental Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), Johnny Marr left the group, citing artistic differences; after failing to find a replacement, the band folded, only reuniting to settle a royalties dispute in 1996.

This compilation opens with 'Panic', a non-album single included on the compilation album The World Won't Listen (1987). Being a single, this feels brighter and more spacious than an album track, but don't think for a moment that that saps the song of all its power. Morrissey's lyrics are potent and Johnny Marr's guitar work is bright and cheerful, the perfect foil for Mozza's misery and irony. The use of children's voices in the final third might well come across as cheesy but because this is only 2:20 long, they're not around long enough for you to complain.

'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' is a different, and much better, kettle of fish. Taken from The Queen Is Dead, this is 3 minutes and 17 seconds of pure and glorious melancholy, juxtoaposed with musical flamboyancy. Morrissey's lyrics are delivered with a distressed abandon which sits perfectly aside Marr's jangly guitar. It's difficult to pick out any one great line from this - it's an holistic piece, the beauty of it is in the finished whole. Rourke's bass thunders along under Mozza's falsetto and Joyce's dynamic yet simple drumming anchors the band. It's the four miseries at their best.

'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' is lifted from Hatful Of Hollow sees a return to a more standard sound - it's slower, drearier and steeped in a great deal more irony. There's a fair bit of hyperbole in this one, and you don't have to look far to find it; lines like What she asked of me/ At the end of the day/ Caligula would have blushed are brimming full of that mid-1980s flair. As I said in my review of Hatful, this is an easier listener than many Smiths songs, but perhaps it's a good thing that it's as short as it is, otherwise the mood can become overpowering and lapse into self-parody.

Now, onto 'Ask'. Ah, this is much more like it. Lifted from Louder Than Bombs (1987), this is an in-your-face, rockabilly-esque onslaught of sheer jauntiness. There are very few Smiths songs which you can dance to - and this is one of them. The lyrics might tiptoe into the surreal - Spending warm summer days indoors/ Writing frightening verse/ To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg - but don't worry about a thing. As on 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side', it feels like the whole band are working together and enjoying themselves. This is a proper 3-minute single, which packs great punch. It's already the best song on here.

Unfortunately, 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' is a massive let-down after that 1950s dance hall euphoria. This does feel like Morrissey is repeating himself, trying to come across as all personal and human when in fact this undermines everything. It doesn't matter how direct he is in his lyrics, Morrissey's role as the anti-anti-hero is built upon a distance from ordinary people, which works because of his knack of spotting human flaws. Marr feels constricted on her, and the helium-inspired backing vocals are just dire.

Being a compilation, it is inevitable that 'How Soon Is Now?' would be on here somewhere. The opening distortion and two-note riff remains as distinctive and as recognisable now as it did in 1984. Morrissey is at his tortured, slurry best, tripping over the end of lines like a drunken Paul Simon. If there is one thing wrong with this particular version, it is that Rourke's bass is almost unintelligible - you can barely hear it except in the instrumental breaks, and that's a shame. 'This Charming Man', also taken from Hatful Of Hollow, does its job with no flourishes. In fact, this is a preferable version, being bereft of the mildly annoying intro on the album.

'What Difference Does It Make?' is another 'typical' Smiths song - drenched in apathy, irony and lugubriousness. Unlike the version from the John Peel sessions, the intro is clearer, and with the slight fade-in it's more fitting to the mood of the piece. It's also a tone lower, which just works wonders - for any song there is an ideal key, and this is it. And this trend of four-star praise continues with 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. As derided as they may be, the people who put this album together have taken the best out of Hatful Of Hollow (and there is a lot to choose from). This reveals the homoerotic, Oscar Wilde-style inspiration in Mozza. Like 'This Charming Man', you can just visualise him camping it up for a video in one of his loose Italian shirts.

Here the praise comes to a sudden stop. 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', the closer from The Queen Is Dead, is and always been a difficult song to live with. For starters, there's the VERY annoying fade-up-and-down at the start, allegedly a mistake in the mastering process; the story goes that the producers were looking to produce a rough, 'spoiled' mix to send to the record company, but they ran out of time and sent the master off without reversing the changes.¹ But even if you overlook this, this feels like a half-arsed attempt. Even without the intro it's too long, and Morrissey's lyrics, when you can hear them, don't really go anywhere.

On 'Girlfriend In A Coma', there can be none of the earlier complaints about Rourke - if you can't hear him in the intro, then you are officially deaf. This is the first track on here from Strangeways, Here We Come, the favourite album of all four band members. And you can see why; everything is very tight and there is a clear progression in the music and the lyrics. Then we step back in time to 'Hand In Glove', the band's very first single. Unlike the version on Hatful Of Hallow, this one - taken from The Smiths - has been stripped of the pointless fade-in at the start. If only if they had seen the sense to remove the harmonica at the start, then this might have been a mildly more compelling song. Is it stands, it remains relatively uncompelling.

'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' is frequently cited as one of The Smiths' best song. Morrissey certainly thinks so, retaining it as the closer for his recent solo tours. And it was recently voted the 4th greatest indie anthem of all time.² There is a lot to like here - the more orchestral, rounded sound is a sharp contrast to their earlier, earthier material. But being a love song, or as close as the band came to them, it fits well. The lyrics flow well, and the ending is very well-executed. It's a brilliant song, but not quite as brilliant as 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want'. It's simple, it's stark and it feels worldly-worn, the very mood which The Smiths espoused. Some might not like the Spanish-sounding guitars at the end, but that doesn't remove anything from this extroardinary 2-minute masterpiece.

'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore' is the first track on here from Meat Is Murder, and it's a pretty good choice. It may be more rambling in its structure and less immaculate in its execution, but as a mood-setter it's great. Marr's guitar sounds great - the acoustic is taut and aggressive, while the guitar is bright, mellow and full of life. The closing lines I've seen this happen in other people's lives/ And now it's happening in mine are another example of lyrical greatness from one of the true greats.

Back to The Queen Is Dead, and 'I Know It's Over'. Like the previous track, this does go on a bit too long for it to qualify as a classic. Nevertheless, all the ingredients are here. The middle section especially deserves plaudits, as Morrissey, backed only by the simplest of beats from Joyce, completely lets rip, spilling his soul over the song. But it trembles in the shadows of 'Sheila Take A Bow'. Another offcut from Louder Than Bombs, this may come across a light remix of 'Ask'. But with its brave brass opening and Marr's glorious acoustic touches, this is so much more. This is another jaunty piece of perfection - sure, with its strings it might not be as earthly as some of the stuff on here, but it's so much more accessible and substantial without being over-intellectual. Smashing stuff.

Back to Strangeways for a second, and oh dear. 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish' is pure self-parody, with its spaced-out production, insubstancial lyrics and tired riffs. Morrissey's slurred grunt at 1:19, and again a minute later, will make your toes curl, and in general his performance is indicative of the worst side of his solo career (see my review of Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006, #79). 'Still Ill' is better, if only because the dreaded harmonica present on Hatful has been removed. With that fatal touch of country gone, you are allowed to appreciate the decent lyrics without looking like an imbecile.

'Shakespeare's Sister' is a return to rockability, with touches of 'How Soon Is Now?' distortion in the intro. This is quick-paced, raunchy and full of life and abandon at the same time, surely a superb feat for a band who violently oscillated from one to the other on most of their songs. This is very underrated lyrically, perhaps because of its short length (2:10). Lines like I thought if you had an acoustic guitar/ It meant you were a protest singer are straight out of the top drawer.

The same cannot be said, however, for 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite'. Released in 1987, it has been compared to T. Rex's 'Children Of The Revolution', and was almost banned after parents complained that it encouraged their children to steal.³ In spite of both of these - well, certainly the second - this has relatively little going for it. It feels like a hollow pop song, complete with all the jangly chords of a late-1980s power ballad. The last two songs continue this faltering form. 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' is a very solid, very morbid piece which sticks in your heart and refuses to let you. It feels dark and heavy, just as The Smiths should be. On the flip side, 'Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' feels clunky, clich├ęd and devoid of any hooks. That said, it is a damn sight better than Mark Ronson's garish travesty-of-a-remix.

The main problem with The Smiths is nothing to do with the content of their songs, or the stereotypes which surround them as a band. The main difficulty is that they are at heart a singles band, which makes albums difficult to judge. It is the reason why something like The Queen Is Dead, hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, comes across as skittish, indecisive and ultimately disappointing. Sure, The Smiths were not a concept album band, nor should they have been, but no Smiths album sustains your interest beyond the first few songs, not even the hyper-political Meat Is Murder. That is why the best way to approach The Smiths is through compilations - the best songs on here are from Louder Than Bombs - and that is why it is this album which is The Smiths' highest entry.

3.87 out of 5
References
¹ Roddy Ashworth, 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', http://www.oz.net/~moz/. Accessed on February 17 2008.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #45: Silence Falls... (2006)

At number 45 is singer-songwriter Gethin Jones, with his first offering for WERL Records.Gethin Jones was born in 1986 and grew up in Carmarthen in Wales. His love of music began at a young age, and by the time he left high school he was well versed in guitar, piano, french horn and drums, as well as honing his skills as a singer. Heavily influenced by the likes of Damien Rice, Leonard Cohen and Antony & The Johnsons, he began writing his own music in 2001, and in 2004 he won a place at Warwick University to study Theatre and Performance Studies. While pursuing a successful career on the stage, especially in the hands of Music Theatre Warwick (MTW), he came to the attention of Warwick Exposure Record Label (WERL). In 2005 he began recording and playing sets in Leamington Spa.

'The Keyholder's Lullaby' is a fitting opener, introducing us to the style of Jones without being so comprehensive as to exhuast all imagination. There is a melancholy feel to the guitar, and the minor chords enhance Gethin's yearning voice. The lyrics might seem like your standard singer-songwriter fare, but of course that's not the most important thing; in this genre it is how authentic the delivery is which matters. And Jones has honesty in spades; there is not a whiff of cynicism or laziness in his voice as he crests the high notes with all the nerve of Ray La Montaigne.

Unfortunately, the next offering is a bit of a step backward. 'Empty' is quicker, not just in its tempo, but that it feels rushed. The big problem with this is that his voice is lost in the mix. Whether that is due to his delivery or the production is a matter to be disputed elsewhere (being a student record its production will be pretty basic - Jaffa Minute? EP (2005, #60) was a very good exception). The result, however, is that this loses a lot of emotional substance and cannot stand up to its predecessor.

'Puppet's Verse' returns us to the introspective, soul-searching sort of song which exemplifies Jones. Unlike 'The Keyholder's Lullaby', this brings out his Christian faith, with lyrics which smack of confusion and alienation:

Am I in control,
Or just a puppet for jaded souls?
Can I choose,
Or is this just a sport for God?

As for the instrumentation, the acoustic is bolder and fuller. If you listen carefully enough in the second verse, you will hear the gentle pickings of a non-descript electric guitar, which brings a sense of character to the piece. This is what Gethin does best, making music that is sensitive and from the heart without coming across as self-obsessed or just another angst-ridden student (if you still need proof, check out 'Regina' on the outtakes album The Silence Sessions (2007)).

'Missing You' brings together the romantic and spiritual strands of the previous songs, synthesising them into something relatively bright and jaunty. It is difficult to tell whether he sings about God or about his former girlfriend, Sophie Thomas, who plays violin on two tracks and to whom the album is dedicated. You hear one line which has a directly spiritual connotation, followed by an openly romantic one. The most interesting thing about this track, though, has to be the 'horn' part, which fits perfectly into the mix.

The title track abandons the guitar temporarily and replaces it with piano. When you hear the first few bars of Jones' voice over the keys, you are slightly perturbed, you think that he is singing out of key. In fact, this is a cunning device which sustains your interest as the guitar comes in and the song winds on to the chorus. This is yet another very good song from Jones, not least because it demonstrates his vocal range. It's not as good, however, as 'Wheels'. This is a punchy 3-minute single, complete with catchy riff and splendid, if subtle, harmonies. The riff tumbles out of his guitar as if he is caressing it, being well-complimented by his vocal performance, the best on the album because it is both emotive and restrained. This is the one track on here that you could honestly play over and over - it's that good.

The album closes with a twist. 'I Will Be' is a heartfelt, lullaby-tempo tune in the same vein as 'Puppet's Verse'; it almost has the same chord progression. It's richer, though, and more optimistic, like Rice's 'Cannonball'. This may have the same irritating thud of limited percussion as 'The Keyholder's Lullaby', but the violin more than makes up for it; it sounds so rich and warm against Gethin's lowest registers. But that is not the end. The hidden track, 'It's Me' (which begins at 5:10), returns to the outright minor chords, setting a funereal scene. Jones delivers the lyrics with all the creepiness of an octogenarian blues singer, and it's a very pleasing song, not least because it's quite a departure.

Many casual listeners and critics alike will brush this album aside as the dawdlings of yet another singer-songwriter, bored with essays and eager to share their self-annihilating misery with their peers. But for all its foibles, Silence Falls... does not fall under that banner. Even if acoustic folk rock isn't your weapon of choice, listening to this you do get a sense of the honesty that has gone into it. This doesn't feel like a random collection of banal and scattered poetry set to a three-chord blues; instead it feels like a journey of discovery. It manages to be introspective and personal without alienating three-quarters of the audience and boring whoever is left. And for that - being an acoustic record which doesn't cause death by boredom - this deserves a place on any chart.

3.86 out of 5

Monday, 7 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #46: The Book Of Kells (1992)

Celtic prog rockers Iona make their first of three entries with The Book Of Kells, a concept album based on an 8th-century illustrated manuscript of the gospels, and their second album overall. Iona formed in 1990, comprised of vocalist Joanne Hogg and multi-instrumentalists David Fitzgerald and Dave Bainbridge. The line-up remained relatively fluid initially, while retaining the three core members. The group released its self-titled debut, a concept album about the island of Iona, in June of the same year. The album featured a number of guest musicians, like Franz van Essen (drums) and Troy Donockley (Uillean pipes), both of whom remain in the line-up to this day. Occassional live performances and a warm reception of the record created a growing reputation for this supergroup in disguise. By this time the core trio had been joined by two more full members, Nick Beggs (bassist, formerly of Kajagoogoo) and Terl Bryant (drums).

'Kells Opening Theme' does what it says on the tin. It kicks us off and already we are treated to one of the most beautiful female voices in music. Joanne Hogg's voice is pure, clear, crisp and haunting against the elegant backdrop created by the keyboards. If you close your eyes and listen to her voice, you will be blown away to a rugged, unspoilt landscape. The elegance of her voice allows her to flow over the lyrics effortlessly - lyrics which, incidentally, have a very unusual structure. What a great start.

'Revelation' takes up the baton from the opening track. With its serence combination of pipes and acoustic guitar, it's a warming and very spiritual track. Hogg demonstrates her range and her voice carries well; unlike Enya she does not have to rely on fancy production to convey emotion. Terl Bryant's drumming might begin pretty basic, but at the end of lines it's fantastic, if a little 1980s. Finally, 2:45 in, Dave Bainbridge unleashes a peculiarly jaunty guitar solo to complete this live favourite.

The next track is one of the greats in modern prog rock. 'Matthew - The Man' may well be the longest track on the album, clocking in at an almighty 11:54, but unlike a lot of prog it isn't drawn out and it isn't allow to bog down. Instead, the instrumental sections are allowed to unfold at near-perfect speed. The keyboards are beautiful, the pipes come in at just the right instances, the bass is deep and guttaral, and the percussion from Messrs. Bryant and van Essen is superb. When Hogg finally arrives, she hardly disappoints, preceded as she is by a wailing acoustic solo. (N. B. If you think this version is good, check out the live version on Woven Cord (2005) - Frans van Essen's drumming is spectacular).

Having done so well so far, 'Chi-Rho' comes across as a poor relation. It's acoustic-driven with lyrics which are both more oblique and delivered more breathily. And that's not good, because it robs Hogg's voice of a lot of its purity, turning her into a worship band singer. The drums are too loud and sound fake. This is a well-structured song, I will admit, but structure alone is not enough to sustain your interests.

'Mark - The Lion' is the second of four tracks which (attempt to) sum up each of the gospels; they are personified as each of the four creatures which made up the angels in Ezekiel 1:10. While 'Matthew - The Man' was replete with thundery bass and wailing acoustic, to indicate the juxtaposition between strength and humility in mankind, this is percussion-heavy, beginning with what sound like bongos being faded in. They sound good with the distant shimmers of the keyboards; but it is only once we pass 1:01 that the track really takes off. Here the rock drums and saxophone take over, and we glimpse the raw, majestic power of the running lion. It's another piece which relies on your imagination to carry the instrumental - just as a concept album should be.

'The River Flows' is similar to 'Chi-Rho', insofar as it's acoustic-led and it falls short of the high standard set by the other tracks. The lyrics are just too simplistic to justify the length of the song (5:01). And the percussion feels flat and repetitive - in all, this has the feeling of filler, one of the main complaints about the album upon its release.¹ 'Luke - The Calf', meanwhile, opens dramatically, first with the sound of waves and then some beautiful, full-blown violins. Listening to this is like lying on a calm beach with the tide slowly coming in, while being gently massaged. The flute part is so sweetly tuned to the song's needs, it was as if God himself had written it (directly or indirectly, depending on what you believe). Most importantly, though, like its two counterparts, you do get an image of a calf - if you can drown out the beach for long enough.

'Virgin And Child' has to be one of the most beautiful songs on here. It's built around a simple phrase on a harp which sounds like a highly-tuned acoustic - which on the basis of the previous tracks might spell underachievement. But here, the guitar guides the piece; it doesn't lead in the traditional sense, it simply anchors it, so that when the flutes come in in the final minute (along with the violins), it doesn't feel crowded. It's another work of complete beauty.

'Temptation' is, by contrast, a lot more dark and aggressive than the other songs we have heard so far. In the opening minute, all is well: the mood is set, the ears are retuned and we listen intently. But at 1:15, it becomes strange, taking on a bouncy characteristic. It sounds like a forgotten outtake of Passion (1989) in its use of Eastern sounds - Dave Fitzgerald, who played sax on 'Mark - The Lion', switches here to the suona, a kind of Chinese clarinet. All very well and good, but this piece has less substance (like a lot of stuff on Passion, as a matter of fact), and so it has all been in vain.

We quickly get back on track, though, so don't fret. 'The Arrest - Gethsemane' sees Fitzgerald returning to the saxophone. Backed by Bainbridge's reverberating keyboard chords, it sounds absolutely gorgeous. This feels meticuously well put-together, creating the perfect wailing backdrop to the beginnings of the Passion (Jesus' arrest and anguish before his crucifixion). By now, one thing you will have noticed is that Hogg has been absent for quite a long time. Not that her absence is especially a bad thing, since her vocals, rather than lead a piece, blend in to the lush instrumental work. But this is the fourth track without her.

'Trinity - The Godhead' is the fifth. It's longer than most of the instrumentals, and it is a lot slower than many of them. But that doesn't matter, not one iota. Why? Because this is a sensational track, a beautiful soundscape which blends perfect musicianship with spacious production. This is one of the few tracks that when, you listen to it in stereo, you feel like you're listening in quadrophonic or 3-D. The shimmering keyboards capture the celestial, ethereal qualities so marvellously, and despite the high quality sound you feel like it is all down to the musicians, not the producer. The saxophone dances through this glorious piece once again, completely this stand-out track. It's not just the best track on the album, it's one of the best Iona have ever written.

'John - The Eagle' completes the quadrilogy of tracks which sum up the gospels. And it works, achieving its aims in spades. The image of an eagle cresting the highest winds is constantly in your mind as Fitzgerald pushes his sax playing to its limits, creating something brilliant in the process. This feels a little more overproduced than the other three, but that's not a massive reason to hate it, especially when the piano in the second half sounds so good. This feels so good to listen to that you just won't care.

'Kells' - the title track is the wrong term here - is essentially a reworking of the opener, with a quicker tempo, more pipes and rockier drums. Now you can tell that van Essen is at the helm and enjoying himself - his licks are just as brilliant as they are on Woven Cord. Hogg makes a great return, and contrary to expectation her voice does not fall flat when confronted with a quicker pace of song. The whole band feels tight and the result is very bright.

We close with 'Eternity - No Beginning, No End', yet another instrumental which drags the tempo back down to a near crawl. Not that it's a bad piece of work - au contraire. The instruments may sound a little strange, but given the time and space they need, they create something genuinely great - angelic yet spooky. Van Essen's drumming is simplified, but he remains on form, and the mysterious vocals at the end are a perfect way to wrap things up.

Progressive rock is the thinking person's rock, where metal is the headbanger's, punk is the loudmouth's and indie is the awkward hedonist's. Falling as it does within the prog genre (at the distinctly unpretentious end, of course), The Book Of Kells both requires your full attention in order to engage you and engages your full attention when you listen. Some criticisms made of it are true - it is a trifle too long, there is a fair bit of filler, and there are not enough vocals. But this is still a splendid piece of craftsmanship. This feels like a soundtrack album, not just because it is full of instrumentals, but because it feels rich and atmospheric. Maybe allmusicguide.com hit on something in its review: "Given the deep thought and consideration required to understand this album fully, it does serve as a soundtrack for the mind's eye."² If nothing else, The Book Of Kells is perfect proof of life left in a genre which the popular press had long pronounced dead.

3.86 out of 5

References
¹ David Sleger, 'The Book Of Kells', http://www.allmusicguide.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=10:azfwxq8aldde. Accessed on January 12 2008.
² Ibid.

Top 100 Albums - #47: Who Are You (1978)

The Who's third of seven entries is Who Are You, the last album recorded before Keith Moon's untimely death in September 1978.After the release of The Who By Numbers in October 1975, The Who embarked on a lengthy tour, a tour which quickly became a globetrotting greatest hits where the running order never changed. After the concert at Charlton Football Ground in 1976 - which entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the loudest gig ever¹ - Pete Townshend put The Who on hold while he attempted to repair his failing marriage. During this period Keith Moon, stranded in Los Angeles, let himself go. In the two years before recording began, his alcohol and drug abuse reached himalayan levels, and he gained a lot of weight - all of which encumbered his already-deteriorating playing. With the band being written off by the critics, pronounced redundant by the punks and being commercially eclipsed by disco, the pressure was on once again for The Who to deliver.

This album smashes into life with 'New Song', and already you are aware of the difference in The Who. Moon's drumming is more... restrained, the synthesisers are back in abundance, and Roger Daltrey's voice is more operatic. This is a big change from the early-1970s sound, where songs were dominated by guitar power chords, primal screams and lightning quick drum fills. It may be more radio-friendly, but it still has a great deal of bite. Daltrey snarls the chorus, unaware of the irony of lines like We drink the same old wine from a brand new jar/ We get hungover but we always survive it. Some called this self-parody, but really this is an epic start.

Not as epic, however, as the next track. 'Had Enough' is the first of three tracks contributed by bassist John Entwistle, and it's already the best track on the album. With its clever synthesiser opening, it allows enough space for both Entwistle's bass and Moon's tom-toms to create the mood and set the tempo, before Daltrey screams the lines at you with anger and grandeur in equal measure. The lyrics are splendid, absolutely made for the melody and acridly honest, like a lot of Townshend's songwriting. Moon hits exhilirating peaks, Entwistle's bass thunders through like a turbocharged exhaust, and the whole band are at their best: tight, yet completely unpredictable. It's an amazing song, full of anger and disillusionment, which perfectly captures the mid-life crisis of rock.

The second Entwistle offering, however, deserves a lot less acclaim. '905' is culled from a rock opera project which used themes of science fiction; the lyrics depict a Brave New World-esque chracter, making his way through life and understanding its redundancy. The main problem with this is that it sounds too much like a lot of later, more desperate prog rock -this could easily have passed as an outtake from Going For The One (1977), Yes' first stab at popular success. Entwistle is not suited to rock opera, whether in his singing or his songwriting, and overall it's easily forgettable.

'Sister Disco' is Townshend's irony-laden attack on commercial music. He seems to mourn the death of disco, when in fact he is savaging it. This is certainly dressed up like a disco single - it's quicker, it's synthesiser-heavy and the heavily-simplified drums are shoved right into the background, almost out of the mix altogether. But this is not The Who in the 1980s, which was pure pop; the break with the acoustic guitar and drum fills is right out of The Who By Numbers and Daltrey's vocal excerpt shortly after is not that far removed from Tommy (1969).

'Music Must Change' is a strange track. The main reason for this is the almost-complete absence of drums, save for a few cymbal crashes. Moon was in such a bad state that he couldn't handle the 6/8 time signature, so Daltrey recorded his vocals to the sound of a rolling milk bottle and Townshend's footsteps. Despite its eeriness, this remains a good, if sprawling song. Daltrey is pushing his vocal range to the limit on the chorus, and yet you get the sense that he is always in complete control.

'Trick Of The Light' is the final Entwistle contribution, and like '905' it's an difficult child. The subject matter - sexual inadequacy - would have been more at home on The Who By Numbers, and suffice it to say that Townshend would have done a better job. As it is, this is an out-of-place, awkward and distinctly below-par composition. It has its peaks, but the troughs easily outway them and eventually you become bored.

The same won't happen, though, with 'Guitar And Pen'. The disco-type effects might still be there, but Townshend is back on the guitar and playing beautifully. Daltrey's voice is lighter and perfectly compliments Moon's improved, aggressive drumming - it's still pretty basic, but basic Moon is better than no Moon. The song reflects the frustration of being a rockstar, with references to the band - When you sing through the verse/ And you end in a scream/ And you swear and you curse/ 'Cos the rhyming ain't clean. It's like a more contemporary version of 'Success Story', again off the previous album.

One of the major complaints about the album is Daltrey's singing; one reviewer noted that "Roge sings in an aggressive, machoistic and bombastic sound, which does not mesh well with the introspective lyrics of Pete Townshend."² On most of the album, this might have been the case - but not so on 'Love Is Coming Down'. Backed by some nice piano and ride cymbals, Daltrey crests the high notes beautifully, not by shouting them, but by reeling himself in. Outside of the lyrics, this is a lovely song, another well-crafted number from Townshend.

The title track is easily one of The Who's most famous tracks. As I said in my review of Then And Now (2004, #63), the best thing about this track is Moon's performance. Having limped his way through the first eight songs, having moments but little more, here he is really trying and, as much as possible, puts in an exhilirating performance. The lyrics are Pete Townshend's retort to punk; they recall the fateful encounter between him and two of the Sex Pistols in a London pub, which led to Townshend being found drunk in a gutter by a policeman. And we get an extra verse into the bargain. All this aside, it's a great track, and the perfect closer.

It's not over yet, though. Being the 1996 remaster, we get 5 extra songs into the bargain. 'No Road Romance' is a perfect Townshend solo song: it's introspective, it's whimsical, and it's slight in the way it's constructed. This has quite a transatlantic 1980s feel to it, which isn't that bad when you think about it. 'Empty Glass' - or 'Choirboy', as it was pejoratively nicknamed - is much worse. It sounds like a demo recording, it has the musical finesse of an American pop group and the drum part is awful. No wonder Daltrey refused to sing it. The final three tracks are all (slightly) different versions of 'Guitar And Pen', 'Love Is Coming Down' and 'Who Are You' - they will entertain the geeks and the sound nerds, but few others.

Who Are You is surrounded in irony, in its lyrics, in the events that followed it, right down to the cover (Moon is seated in a chair saying 'Not To Be Taken Away'). As a result it has to be judged as a product of its time. On this basis it is clear that The Who had hit their musical wall. Much like Led Zeppelin, the rot was setting in even before the death of their drummer (it would be interesting to compare this album to In Through The Out Door (1979)). The band never recorded this with all of them in the studio at any one time, so what you are hearing is essentially Townshend's demoes. This creates a disparity in the finished product which only highlights the moments of retreading old ground. Having said all that, Who Are You is more than a last hoorah. It's a brilliant document of both the state of the band and the state of music in 1978. It is worth buying this just for the good bits - and there are plenty of them. This is the last great album The Who ever made. That is, until recently...

3.86 out of 5

References
¹ 'Quadrophenia and By Numbers' in 'The Who', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_who#Quadrophenia_.26_By_Numbers. Accessed on January 7 2008.
² Omer Belsky, 'Call It Who's Next Part II' (September 26 2003), http://www.amazon.com/review/R3LVHZ19RDYLUI. Accessed on January 8 2008.