Odds & Sods, the new Who album, collects 11 outtakes, most of them cut between 1968 and 1972. It is an uneven lot. "Put the Money Down" finds vocalist Roger Daltrey at the nadir of an erratic career, while John Entwistle's "Postcard," like several other tracks, will hold more interest for curiosity seekers than music lovers.
But the fumbling is almost as illuminating as the flashes of inspiration dotting this album. Far from exploiting a random set of discards, Odds & Sods gives the listener a fascinating glimpse of one of our best bands, caught in the process of forging a style. While Odds & Sods affords fresh evidence of the Who's durability as rock stylists, it also vividly reveals the elements behind that style — its limitations as well as its scope.
Peter Townshend, the band's composer and guiding light, appears here not as the grand architect but as the ingenious artisan. He deals in cliches, but they are his own cliches, so deftly assembled that they've become a bold musical signature. Townshend's stylistic units function best in brief doses or in formats where he can move quickly from theme to theme. "Glow Girl" on this album and "Rael" on The Who Sell Out sustain their momentum, whereas Townshend's longer works — Tommy, Quadrophenia — occasionally falter.
Most of Townshend's songs are structured chromatically. By modulating stock riffs and progressions, he creates harmonic variety yet preserves rock basics. In fact, Townshend's genius lies in creating memorable pop from familiar elements: He has opened up the process of rock composition without significantly altering its ingredients.
Although the Who, as performers, present a patchwork of contradictions, their identity and playing are central to the successful realization of Townshend's ideas. Daltrey shouts as much as he sings, but his unlikely presence — he seems an unblemished but worldly orphan — helps temper Townshend's piety. Similarly, Keith Moon's zaniness and Entwistle's stoic humor both extend Townshend's own sense of irony and help counter his occasional pretentious-ness. There is a naturalness and taste of reality about this flawed but inviolable quartet of musicians.
The group's slashing guitar chords, explosive drum fills and anarchic breaks all add up to a classic rock style. Although Townshend has been its principal designer, it is a style that belongs to the group collectively, as Odds & Sods proves once again. Without Moon's kinetic percussion, Daltrey's vocal posturing or Entwistle's bristling bass, Townshend's songs tend to drag.
Townshend's solo version of "Pure and Easy" (on Who Came First) flounders in awkward sentiment ("as men try to realize the simple secret of the note in us all"). But the version on Odds & Sods is by contrast a minor masterpiece. Uncluttered and blunt, the band's arrangement catalyzes the track, while Roger Daltrey's labored vocal belies the sanctimony of the lyric. In the song's penultimate section, Keith Moon brilliantly builds tension until the band explodes beneath the "note in us all" line. Townshend follows with a shuddering guitar solo and "Pure and Easy," once a yawning ode to the karmic chord, becomes instead its invocation — and you don't need to hear the words to know it.
What all this suggests — and it should come as no surprise — is that the Who's forte is rock, straight and (relatively) simple. On one level Townshend understands this and can even celebrate the fact, as witness Odds & Sods's bravura closer, "Long Live Rock."
But on another plane, Townshend aspires to something grander. He would like to import transcendental themes into pop; on occasion, he seems to fancy the Who "meta-popstars," theoreticians as well as practitioners of rock. These ambitions have prompted works like last year's "opera," Quadrophenia.
Odds & Sods provides a standpoint for reassessing that landmark. Ironically, the new album accomplishes de facto what Quadrophenia strained for — a portrait of rock as a privileged but insular form of life, destined to perish with youth.
Quadrophenia employed musical motifs and an elaborate dramatic superstructure to make its point. The plot was interesting, almost epic; but the music, a seamless mélange of repetitious themes, lacked the focus imposed by more modest forms.
Odds & Sods has no plot and boasts no premeditated motifs. Instead, its hodgepodge of tracks, thoughtfully paced and annotated, presents pop music raw, the rough edges intact. Rather than fictionalizing the process, Odds & Sods simply documents the metamorphosis of Britain's quintessential mid-Sixties rock band.
We follow the Who from the cutting wit of "Little Billy" (an antismoking commercial that was never aired) to the earnest professions of "Naked Eye" ("There's only one who can really move us all"*). We hear the apostles of absurdity become gurus to a fading counterculture and we hear rock grow old gracefully. Without pretense and despite an abundance of lapses, Odds & Sods confirms the greatness of the Who.