The Small Faces were an ambitious sixties rock group who adroitly combined everything from Brit-pop to art-rock to psychedelia. Their main claim to fame was the (deserved) cult favorite Ogden Nut's Gone Flake, an album that pushed the boundaries of sixties music conventions without losing sight of the band's signature delightful pop melodies.
First Step, however, is a Small Faces album in name only. After lead member Steve Marriott left, the group was essentially commandeered by future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and the soon-to-be megastar vocalist Rod Stewart. Despite the continued presence of Small Faces originals Ronnie Lane, Kenny Jones and Ian McLagan, there are few traces of the seminal art-rock pioneers that they used to be. Unbridled starry-eyed ambition is replaced by the kind of sloppy, heavy rock music favored by the new arrivals, and it's almost impossible to reconcile the mini-rock opera that concludes Ogden's Nut Gone Flake with muddy jams like Pineapple and the Monkey.
The group is so transformed that most rock historians regard First Step as the first Faces album as opposed to the final Small Faces LP. Fans of Small Faces will find the band's abrupt musical shift most jarring, with no real transitional period to brace them for the shock. This will most likely lead to some rather uncharitable critiques from fans who long for the band's glory days. These attacks are unfair, as any band should be judged on their own merits.
Nevertheless, one mustn't be too hasty to write off all criticisms as the products of spurned Brit-pop aficionados, as the album has plenty of flaws on its own terms as well. Chief among these problems is the fact that many of the tracks feel as if they exist solely to provide an excuse for an extended jam. Sometimes the band don't even try to disguise this (like on the instrumental Pineapple and the Monkey), but on other occasions they try to pass off inconsequential segues as legitimate songs (like Around the Plynth).
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with featuring a number of jams, particularly for a group like The Faces. Unfortunately, these jams aren't always that interesting, and some of them even feel borderline interchangeable. The jams are almost always entertaining while they're playing, but there's little done to make any of them feel the least bit memorable.
One will invariably long for some actual songs, and it's here that one must be thankful that the band retained the services of Lane and McLagan. Lane in particular is largely responsible for the presence of 'songs' on the album. While his ballad Devotion is bland and generic, his folk-pop number Stone makes for a nice change of pace. More importantly, when he collaborates with Wood and Stewart, he manages to shape some desultory jams into coherent rock songs. Thus Flying boasts some suitably soaring arrangements, not to mention jams that are structured to accommodate more 'song' elements. Elsewhere, while Nobody Knows is ultimately unexceptional, it also marks another case of Lane forcing Wood to reign in his guitarwork and conform to a more typical song-framework.
McLagan works with Stewart on the album's best cut, the charming, amusing and catchy Three Button Hand Me Down. The song is another example of how the 'leftover' Small Faces members are, at least for the time being, more skilled at crafting cohesive rock songs.
When not relying on the likes of Lane and McLagan, the band are not above looking for songwriting-guidance from past greats. On First Step, the band chooses Dylan as their influence, hence the cover of Wicked Messenger. Obviously the track rocks far more than the Dylan original; surprisingly, a heavier arrangement fits the song quite well. Once again Wood in particular fares far better when forced to operate within the confines of someone else's song structure, and there are few better than Dylan to look to for help in that area.
Admittedly the songs penned by Wood and Stewart are more suspect. While Lane co-writes Shake, Shudder, the track centers upon a decent but ultimately uninspired jam. Around the Plynth is another overlong jam, as is Wood's instrumental Pineapple and the Monkey.
Strangely enough the album includes yet another needlessly protracted instrumental, but this one arrives courtesy of Small Faces members Jones and McLagan. Much like the jams written by Wood, the song is quite entertaining while playing, but ultimately fades away in retrospect.
Thus most of the album's problems stem from an over-saturation of jams, to the point where anything even remotely resembling a real song will be welcomed with open arms. This is why I embrace Ronnie Lane tracks like Stone and Nobody Knows despite the fact that they're quite flawed on their own terms (though nothing can salvage Devotion). In reality there's a good chance that with fewer jams and more songs the entire dynamic of the album could be reversed. Still, the balance of jams and songs isn't so terrible so as to ruin the quality of the entire album, and there's enough solid material so as to make for a consistently enjoyable listening experience. While the shift from the style of the Small Faces to the Faces may not please all fans, the caliber of First Step should help cushion the blow of losing a great art-rock band for a solid hard-rock one.
The Faces have always been compared to the Rolling Stones. Part of this can be attributed to Ronnie Wood's future in that legendary rock outfit, of course, but there's more to it than that bit of rock and roll trivia.
In many respects, The Faces are precisely the rock group that The Stones masqueraded as for much of their careers. On songs like It's Only Rock N' Roll, Jagger and company profess to be the same kind of raw, raunchy and uncompromising rock band as The Faces.
The difference is that The Stones are not this kind of band, as in reality they're a far more diverse, intelligent and sophisticated group altogether. For whatever reason The Stones have always been afraid of appearing too ambitious or self-important, causing them to disguise their art as a more primitive form of rock music.
On the other hand, it's clear that The Faces are profoundly influenced by The Stones themselves. The Faces are not as bereft of ambition as they may initially appear, and at their most adventurous they're not above taking cues from Jagger and company.
Unfortunately, The Faces suffer a number of handicaps that curtail these lofty aspirations. Whereas The Stones are incredibly versatile, The Faces are an inherently limited band, seldom escaping the bounds of generic blues and barroom rock.
Thus The Stones often pretend to be The Faces, while The Faces often pretend to be The Stones. The truth is that neither band succeed in that endeavor, but ultimately that's all for the better, as both groups are fine exactly as they are.
While I lamented The Faces' lack of variety on First Step, their sophomore effort, Long Player, offers at least a modicum of diversity. True, the band are still firmly entrenched in basic roots rock and blues, but they do attempt to leave their comfort zone on more than a few occasions.
Sometimes this leads to positive results, though Ronnie Wood's acoustic, instrumental rendition of Jerusalem is simply puzzling, as is the fact that he's credited with writing the song.
More typical of the band's latent ambition are numbers like the amusing On The Beach, complete with some irresistible slide-guitar courtesy of Wood. The group further enter unfamiliar territory with a cover of Paul McCartney's Maybe I'm Amazed. Despite some impeccable guitar heroics from Wood and spirited vocals from Rod Stewart, the track adds little to the anthemic original, but it's still encouraging to see the band try their hand at something different.
What really helps the album, however, is a greater degree of tightness and focus in the group's jams, not to mention a healthier amount of structure in the band's songwriting. The tracks no loner feel like segues between instrumental breaks, while the jams themselves are no longer desultory, haphazardly merged solos.
Wood and Stewart have dramatically grown as songwriters since their blunders on First Step. Their songs no longer feel like forced excuses to jam (in the case of Wood) or forums to over-emote (as with Stewart). Furthermore, they try to better integrate their collaborators into their compositions, leading to numbers like the genuinely moving ballad Sweet Lady Mary where each member comes together to make something truly special.
Strangely, the previously reliable Ronnie Lane is in poor form as a songwriter. Tell Everyone is little more than a bland ballad, while Richmond has precious little to recommend it. He works well when collaborating with Wood, but his own numbers are simply unremarkable, which is exacerbated by the fact that there are no jams in Lane's work to salvage these debacles.
By now, Ian McLagan has basically been forced out of the creative end of things, collaborating on but a single track (the immensely entertaining riff-rocker Bad 'N' Ruin). Elsewhere he's simply nowhere to be found, reduced to the role of a mere musician in a band where he was once a pivotal songwriter.
In addition to Bad 'N' Ruin, highlights include the delightful rocker Had Me A Real Good Time and the fan-polarizing live cover of the blues standard I Feel So Good. I quite like the latter track, but it's marred by the obligatory fan-interaction segment. Nevertheless it's another indication of the band gelling, delivering a raw and powerful (if overlong) performance.
Ultimately Long Player isn't really that far removed from its predecessor. There are still misfires and missteps, and while most of the material is highly entertaining, very little of it can be called unique or original. The Faces are simply about delivering a good time, and in that department they mostly succeed. They'll never make a grand artistic statement, but in their case not only do they not have to, they actually shouldn't.
While Rod Stewart's sudden success as a solo artist proved to be the catalyst for The Faces' dissolution, in late 1971 it was hard to argue that it spelled anything but good fortune for the band. Stewart's chart-topper Maggie May granted the group the kind of mainstream exposure that had hitherto eluded them, culminating in The Faces' first hit Stay With Me.
Even if The Faces were successful because of Stewart and Stewart alone, this scarcely mattered; what mattered was simply that they were successful. Stewart's superstardom doubtlessly bred jealousy amongst his colleagues, but in the midst of such commercial triumph no one was apt to question the cause of their newfound luck.
If Stewart's popularity did indeed earn him the enmity of his collaborators, the band certainly disguise this antipathy well. On A Nod is as Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse…, The Faces have never sounded tighter or more focused. The band's chemistry is at an all-time high, with each band-member playing off the others with effortless precision.
Somehow even with this newly acquired tightness, the band manages to retain some of the endearing sloppiness that has always been a trademark of their sound. In the case of some bands, one of the chief goals in the struggle to better themselves is to erase any such traces of sloppiness. For The Faces, however, any progression or evolution must never come at the expense of their casual feel. What would be an impediment for others has always been an asset for The Faces. Thus even as they improve in other departments, they make no effort to purge themselves of their signature sloppiness, to the point where even technically proficient solos must be accompanied by a disarmingly loose, relaxed feel.
On their third outing the dominance of the Stewart/Wood tandem is unmistakable, but this might be for the best. The duo have truly mastered their style of bluesy barroom rock, and thus all four of their tracks are hugely entertaining rockers. Miss Judy's Farm and the single Stay With Me are particularly strong, but Wood and Stewart are also sure to end the album on a high note with catchy Too Bad and the jam-fest That's All You Need.
Even as The Faces perfect their brand of rock, however, they lag behind in other areas. Much of this can be attributed to the middling efforts of Ronnie Lane, who seems to suffer from the erroneous notion that when it comes to balladry, earnestness inherently equals quality.
While Debris may be emotionally transparent, this doesn't make it moving. In the case of Love Lives Here no amount of sincerity can compensate for a lack of melodic substance, and Last Orders Please fares little better.
Thus it's telling that Lane's finest moment on the album isn't a would-be catharsis-inducing confessional, but rather the darkly amusing anecdote of attempted and thwarted seduction, You're So Rude. The track has more personality than all of Lane's ballads combined, and never suffers because of its lack of 'sincerity' or 'emotional frankness.'
On this go-round the obligatory cover is an enjoyable rendition of Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennessee. The Faces continue to improve when it comes to jamming, and the song is an ideal forum to showcase this musical growth.
Ultimately the album can be a somewhat frustrating experience. The Faces have never sounded better when it comes to rockers, but the lackluster quality of the ballads is a great liability. When Lane doesn't take on a more edgy persona his work simply comes across as bland and tepid, and this mars an otherwise highly impressive product.
Now that Wood and Stewart have learned how to better structure songs, they're less reliant on Lane for guidance in that department. As a result, they have grown where Lane has not, as while he may have mastered the fundamentals of songwriting he has ample room for improvement when it comes to making his tracks distinctive or interesting.
Thus A Nod is as Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse… is a fun but flawed album. It marks the pinnacle of The Faces' work when it comes to rock music, but regrettably suffers in other departments. It's most definitely a good album, but narrowly misses the chance to be the band's undisputed masterpiece thanks to its mediocre balladry. Admittedly a 'masterpiece' from The Faces would still be a far cry from a 'masterpiece' from better rock outfits, but this doesn't mean that it wouldn't be a great deal of fun in its own right.
Not every group can go out in a blaze of glory, capping off their storied careers with their defining moment. Not every band can have a swansong that feels like the natural culmination of years of hard work and creativity. Thus for every Abbey Road there's a Phobia, for every brilliant, enduring legacy a crudely written, infelicitous epitaph. Then there are some bands that evade both fates, releasing not a dramatic conclusion but what is, in essence, "just" another rock album.
From a stylistic perspective, The Faces were relatively static for the entirety of their careers. The balance of rockers-to-ballads may have fluctuated at times, and Stewart and Wood exhibited at least a modicum of growth as songwriters, but in the end the band basically released the same album over and over again in their brief time together.
For a group like this there's no logical termination point. Ooh La La, The Faces' final outing, is an album that the group could have continued to make time after time with little effort expended. There's no particular reason that the LP has to be the band's last hurrah, and the group do little to differentiate it from anything that has come before. Thus instead of a conclusion, we're left with First Step Volume 4, the final product of a group that doesn't end but simply stops.
While we're deprived of a climax, we are given consistency, and that's nothing to scoff at. All four Faces albums are on a very similar level, each offering ample entertainment and fun. The band's work is seldom memorable, and the group can be somewhat self-indulgent at times, but any time that Stewart, Wood and Lane get together a good time is had by all.
This also means, however, that the Faces' customary flaws are always in full force and, in the case of Ooh La La, exacerbated in some respects. The primary culprit, predictably enough, is Ronnie Lane, an unusually talented rock artist for someone who manages to sabotage so many albums.
Ooh La La is bifurcated into a 'hard' section and a 'soft' section. While this format has worked for such luminaries as The Rolling Stones, in the case of The Faces, who are lackluster at best when it comes to balladry, this essentially means that after the halfway point the album ceases to be interesting.
This isn't entirely fair, as the title track is decent enough, but in the long run songs like I'm on the Late Side and Glad and Sorry are essentially the same bland, nondescript ballads that Lane has been recycling since the inception of The Faces.
While the rockers are certainly better, only two of them, the opener Silicone Grown and the rollicking Borstal Boys, qualify as top tier Faces cuts. Both tracks boast catchy riffs and infectious rock and roll energy, and are emblematic of exactly the kind of primitive fun that the Faces provide at their very best.
Thus Ooh La La may not be an ideal swansong, but it's certainly a fun album. Even when they falter, The Faces can still be counted on for an entertaining listen; this is hardly a profound legacy, but the band was never about profundity, and that is one of their most endearing traits.