New CDs have mixed success, but these guys can still rock

The Baltimore Sun

Years ago, both acts brought a campy theatricality to rock. In 1969, the Who stretched the genre's possibilities with Tommy, the celebrated but flawed "rock opera." Eight years later, Meat Loaf used a similar template for Bat Out of Hell, suffusing his bombastic mini-epics with kitsch and a winking sense of humor.

Now, well into the iPod age when rock generally is more streamlined and hype supplants craft, the Who and Meat Loaf want to be grand again on their respective new releases: Endless Wire and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose. On both albums, which land in stores today, the legendary pop-rock acts recast old musical ideas with mixed results.

Endless Wire is the Who's long-belated follow-up to 1982's It's Hard. In that time, the members of the precedent-setting British band have put out solo albums, dabbled in acting and reunited repeatedly. (The Who's spirited set was the highlight at last month's Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course.) Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are the only surviving members of the original lineup. (Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, and bassist John Entwistle died four years ago.) On the new CD, the two are augmented by drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son), guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete's younger brother) and bassist Pino Palladino.

This time out, the lyrics center on religion and music - two topics Pete Townshend, the group's visionary, loves to explore. The music flows in and out of folkish motifs, floating synth-based arrangements and searing arena rock. Daltrey's vocals, though weathered these days, are still powerful - adding character to Townshend's sometimes acidic lyrics. The more interesting songs appear in the album's first half, namely "A Man in a Purple Dress," a flaming arrow at Catholic priests, and "Mike Post Theme," a revelatory look at aging.

It doesn't really matter that the 21 songs on Endless Wire fail to cohere. And who cares whether the mini-opera during the CD's second half rambles and stumbles (much like Tommy did but without the affecting energy)? Above making a cohesive album, the men of the Who want to show that they're still relevant, that after all these years they can still jam. Here and there, Endless Wire proves they can, but with more frills than thrills.

On 1977's Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf squeezed many thrills out of Jim Steinman's shamelessly grandiose material. The singer's background in theater certainly helped to infuse an emotional resonance into songs such as "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." The LP went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, with more than 30 million copies sold. Its sequel, 1993's Bat of Hell II: Back into Hell, was another smash, spurred by the overblown hit "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)."

Despite legal woes with Steinman, who owns the copyright to the albums' title and didn't want to participate in a third one, Meat Loaf has managed to release yet another installment with producer Desmond Child. Though several of Steinman's songs appear on the new album, he wasn't involved this time. And his absence is sorely missed. Though the previous Bats were certainly calculated in a sense, the albums felt more inspired. Meat Loaf's performances soared. On the new album, however, his vocals are still full but half-hearted. Bat Out of Hell III is too self-conscious, clumsily following the blueprint of the original.

The album opens with "The Monster Is Loose," a noisy, meandering instrumental. By the third track, we get The Big Ballad courtesy of Steinman: "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." Originally recorded by bombast queen Celine Dion, it is one of the sappiest, most annoying songs ever created. Not even the ever-charismatic Meat Loaf and his duet partner, the equally appealing Marion Raven, can save the song.

Like the Who's Endless Wire, Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell III lacks fluidity. The tones jarringly shift; the humor feels forced. Whereas the Who's new songs are sometimes interestingly climactic, Meat Loaf's current batch of tunes never go anywhere. And the botchy production certainly doesn't help matters. It's clear the actor-singer is only as strong as his songs.

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