The Faces exist in an odd margin of rock history, lacking the wide acclaim of some their British blues rock brethren, and being perhaps more commonly notable now as Rod Stewart and Ron Wood’s previous band. Formed after the breakup of the Small Faces, they veered away from the psychedelic and pop elements in order to pursue a bluesier sound. They were not all that groundbreaking musically, treading in same muddy waters as the Rolling Stones in their early seventies period. In fact one can imagine them as a combination of The Band and The Stones, a perfect collaboration of songwriters and styles who managed an astonishing run of simple, raw, elegant rock in their prime. There are nods and winks to both bands in the music itself: see the way the sound of “Debris” is quite similar to “Wild Horses” just as “Flags And Banners” thematically recalls “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” But this is clever, hooky rock that rewards repeated listens with subtle interplay and an innate chemistry that seems to only exist for a few bands for a short time.
The excellent box set Five Guys Walk Into A Bar offers a nearly complete selection of the band’s best work. Tracks have been selected and programmed with care, with enough variation among the hits, album tracks, and rarities to satiate old fans as well listeners unfamiliar with the depth of the material. This band could fall into a raw rock groove as easily as a pretty folk melody; the lyrics are equal juvenile humor (“Silicone Grown,” in which Rod finally draws the line at his wife’s breast enhancements) and insightful sentimentality (see the circular generational structure of “Ooh La La” ). Their cover interpretations of McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” find the heart of those songs in the way the original versions didn’t even manage. Other covers include The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” – the boys certainly knew their American soul. There’s even an odd cover of The Beach Boys “Gettin’ Hungry” from the Smiley Smile LP; whereas Brian Wilson’s original might have had a literal intention (see his opening lyric from “Still I Dream Of It”: “Time for supper now/Day’s been hard and I’m so tired/I feel like eating now/Smell the kitchen now…”), The Faces find the lascivious core of the song with more plausibility than The Beach Boys. This set includes an elegant (if slightly off-key) cover of Hendrix’s “Angel” followed by one of the band’s own staple grooves, “Stay With Me,” from live BBC sessions that perfectly captures what makes them so fun and special. The only problem with the set is the three version of “Miss Judy’s Farm” – a great song, but not necessary in multiple incarnations. Otherwise, this is one of the few instances where one might argue that a compilation could supplant the full catalog. After all, the band only released four proper albums so the few exclusions are outshined by the rare and live tracks on the set.
But The Faces were a collective, not unlike Wu-Tang Clan in their prime period, with each member contributing to solo efforts so much as to make those albums as essential as the main canon. Rod Stewart’s first few albums – collected on the Reason To Believe compilation – are full of blues and folk rock gems, which might come as a surprise to those only familiar with his later incarnations as eighties pop rocker and then standards crooner. There are covers of more obscure Dylan tracks like “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and “Only A Hobo,” along with a variety of country and blues covers and collaborations that reveal an impressive eclecticism and ingenuity. A few missteps: Elton John’s “Country Comfort” seems like a good choice but is taken at a slow, awkward pace that doesn’t have the effortless step of the original, while “Pinball Wizard” seems like a bad choice and is indeed painfully awful. Something tells me that Rod is artist who needs to be reined in by a good producer or collaborator, lest his hammy tendencies get the best of him. But make no mistake: Rod Stewart’s first few solo albums are very good, about as far from the poppy puerility of his later “work” as one can imagine. “Italian Girls” from Never A Dull Moment has the classic riffy interplay of the best Faces work:
It seems though that much of the musical character of the band came from Ronnie Lane, whose genius often found subtler, more idiosyncratic forms. The Faces might have strayed too far into straight blues rock territory without his moments of folky insight like “Ooh La La” and “Richmond.” And his bass work often jumps out of the mix with inventive melodic turns around the solid grooves. He formed his own band, Slim Chance, for several albums and later collaborated with Pete Townshend for the Rough Mix LP. There is a clever sort of humor to his lyrics and a strong folk tradition in his melodies – his music has a unique character that shines through and seems, in hindsight, to have been the heart of The Faces’ sound. One For The Road is the best solo album, even if the goofier sensibility might not have suited a wider audience.
Then there’s Ron Wood, who has since found a successful career as Keith Richards Jr. Not a bad gig actually. I’ve always had – as Orwell once wrote of Gandhi – an “aesthetic distaste” for Ron Wood’s style, that itself seems aped from Keef’s more natural coolness. Add to the fact that his lineage in Rolling Stones’ guitar history follows Mick Taylor, a legendarily fluid player, and Brian Jones, a legendarily bad swimmer. Taylor’s work elevated the Stones’ sound immensely during that peak period, while Jones played marimbas on “Under My Thumb” and, admittedly, founded the band. Wood just sort of plays, and not particularly well. Or at least not to the level of his predecessor. But his Faces work redeems all of this: his riffing is simple but extraordinarily effective, and his solo work includes the oddball minor classic I’ve Got My Own Album To Do. So there you go, Ron Wood is not all bad.
The Faces are much more than their four proper albums, and certainly deserve much more recognition for their collective work in the early seventies. Wu Tang of the British blues scene? Not quite, but certainly worth an investment for any fan of the Stones, the Band, etc. Have you a real good time.