Review Summary: There are moments brilliance, but at the end of the day, this is still an album made up of songs that didn't quite belong anywhere else.
Originally released as a deterrent against the extensive bootleg market of unreleased songs, this is the Who collection that you probably already have if you started listening to them after they began remastering and re-releasing all of their albums. Many of these songs have been inserted as bonus tracks with the album whose context they were originally recorded or composed (or in the case of the Lifehouse songs attached to Who's Next). This, to me, is a superior arrangement, as many of these songs, excellent on their own and in the context of their respective recording sessions, have little cohesion here. So while there's a good chance this album is redundant, if you enjoy listening to album exclusively in their original incarnation or if you're some old fogey who remembers buying Tommy when it first came out on vinyl, then this collection is for you.
While it's never wise to come into a B-side collection with expectations of cohesion, this one has an especially inconsistent tone. Unlike strong examples of such releases, The Smashing Pumpkins' Pieces Iscariot immediately comes to mind, where the recordings were taken from a somewhat limited time frame or revolve around a similar idea or style, this album is a jumble of tracks from an eleven year recording span, from the time when they called themselves The High Numbers to the release of Quadrophenia. Accordingly, what we get is a vertigo worthy crash course through history, yet an oddly jumbled one, as the band has not put the tracks in chronological order, so that The Who Sell Out era "Little Billy" and "Glow Girl" are sandwiched between three Lifehouse songs, while "I'm the Face," their first single is near the end of the album and would have been out of place almost anywhere they stuck it. It seems as if the intention here is to break up the songs from a particular era to prevent the album from feeling disjointed; unfortunately, it is a decision that has the exact opposite effect. At the same time, it's nice that the track list is somewhat limited. What we get is the best of the worst, the cream of the chaff, and while the quality is spotty, it's not nearly as spotty as most exhaustive compilations.
Individually, the songs are generally good, and while they never bore, their quality is somewhat inconsistent. Aside from a few standout tracks, it won't live up to repeated listens, and mostly serves as a history lesson and a method to analyze influences, as the voices of other bands shine through on this album more so than their official releases. "Now I'm A Farmer" sounds like it would just as easily work on an outtake compilation from The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society sessions, and "Faith In Something Bigger" shows the influence of groups like The Byrds and The Turtles. It's particularly interesting, because the Who were generally innovative on their records, concealing their influences and allowing their own voice to make itself heard, so that aside from the fact that it's obvious they listened to The Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow album, the geneses of their work is often ambiguous.
Similarly it contains bits of who history that never made it to an official release. The inclusion of their first single shows the growth of the band and can be juxtaposed to both the rest of this album and their main discography to note how they've changed over the years. "Glow Girl," one of the best tracks on the album, contains a coda that would become the birth of Tommy, both literally and figuratively, providing an interesting look at the bridge between The Who Sell Out and their famous first rock opera. And this excluding the fact that it's a damn good song in its own right, with driving instrumentation and lyrics about a woman who dies in a plane crash and then immediately being reincarnated (although I think it makes for a much more interesting song to interpret it as a woman giving birth as the plane crashes; somehow that feels more poignant). Along with those are the aforementioned tracks from the abandoned Lifehouse project. Although there is little indication of what the concept of the album would have been based on these tracks alone, with the exception of "Pure and Easy" which explores Townshend's theory about the power of a perfect note or chord, they are, again, an interesting piece of Who history that can be enjoyed on their own or as a vehicle to feel wistful about what could have been. Lastly, it's nice to see the inclusion of studio favorites such as "Naked Eye," even though it falls short in comparison to live versions.
The problem is that for every few brilliant or intriguing songs, there are strange and obvious stinkers. The closer, "Long Live Rock," is a generic addition to the ubiquitous collection of rock musicians writing homages to their genre. Although The Who certainly rocked hard, it's a little topically strange for them, and it's pretty clear why it never made any of their albums. The same can be said for "Now I'm A Farmer," which musically sounds like a Who song, but lyrically not at all.
In the end, the title of the album really says it all. This is a rough collection, and while it's a fascinating piece of history of one of the most prolific rock bands in history, it isn't exactly for the casual fan, or for someone expecting a coherent release. Those willing to wade through it, however, will find moments of wealth can hold their own with the best work of their career.