THE WHO Endless Wire (Helicon) The Who's Endless Wire is neither the embarrassing train wreck it could have been nor a groundbreaking new chapter in the history of arguably the most important band in rock history. Instead, Endless Wire is a competent collection of Pete Townshend songs that occasionally reach powerful emotional peaks and provide a potent reminder of the band's former greatness. The album's problems, however, are many and varied. Performed with perfunctory professionalism by Townshend and a slew of Who sidemen and studio pros, Endless Wire is frequently sung in overblown fashion by vocalist Roger Daltrey, the only Who member besides Townshend still alive. Preferring to rely on generic "name-that-Who-tune" chord progressions, Townshend never really conjures up the kind of melodies that once launched a million hearts into a lifelong affair with rock and roll. The opener, "Fragments," reinvents the "Baba O'Riley" opening synthesizer loop but devolves into "mature" (read: boring) middle-of-the-road pop. The clever "Mike Post Theme" shows some spunky sing-along vitality, but tunes like "Black Widow Eyes" and "It's Not Enough" suffer from a muted production that tends to sap the energy out of the retread music. Ironically, it's when they refrain from rocking out that Townshend and Daltrey make their most affecting music: the anti-religion ballad "A Man in a Purple Dress" sounds like it could have been a 1963 Dylan outtake; also strong are solo acoustic performances by Townshend on the country-tinged "God Speaks of Marty Robbins" and the charming "You Stand By Me." Lyrically, Townshend continues a career-long trend of focusing on "big" issues: aging, dissatisfaction, the meaning of life. He's one of rock's great philosophers and can still turn a phrase or two - but just as often he attempts to squeeze too many ideas into too little space. Daltrey often sounds like he has a problem wrapping his tongue around Townshend's verbose and awkward lyrics, but his real problem is his range. When he sings in the lower registers, the prototypical rock and roll shouter sounds stately, but when his voice rises, so does the bluster, the straining â€¦ and the cringing. After nine stand-alone songs, Endless Wire features another nine-song "mini-opera" called "Wire & Glass." Falling somewhere between A Quick One, the ambitious Tommy and Quadrophenia and Townshend's more recent solo work, the group of short songs re-ignites those old Who sparks. The punchy "We Got a Hit" and "Mirror Door" pay nods to musical icons of the past and seem like an attempt to place the story of The Who, now whittled down to just Townshend and Daltrey, into historical perspective. "We got our folks together, we broke down barriers, we found a dream to dream, we were the carriers" is as succinct a summation of the band's accomplishments as any rock historian could come up with. The reflective "They Made My Dream Come True" and the touching closer "Tea & Theatre" finish the task with style and grace. At the end of the latter, Daltrey sings plaintively - in my interpretation, anyway - to an equally spent Townshend, with spare music providing the background as the two men look back on their trail of madness and ask, "Before we walk from this stage, two of us, will you have some tea? At the theatre with me?" It's enough to make you cry for Keith Moon, John Entwhistle, windmill guitar chords, lassoed microphones and the inevitable journey from youth to old age - and to be thankful for the gifts that Pete Townshend, who didn't die before he got old, still possesses.