Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Classic Albums: The Faces, A Nod is as Good as a Wink...to a Blind Horse
If I was given the ability to travel back in time in the early 70s and see one musical performer of my choice in concert, I'd probably choose James Brown. (The reasons should be obvious). Following in close second would be The Faces. "But hey" you'll say, "didn't the Stones embark on a famous tour back in '72." They sure did, and from what I've heard and seen, The Faces would've blown Jagger and crew right off of the stage. (Just compare this clip of the Stones and this clip of the Faces.) They were younger, hungrier, and chaotic in ways that created the kind of happy accidents that can make a live show truly wonderful. Today outside of the rock snob set they are mostly remembered for being Rod Stewart's band, a travesty for a group that was the most exciting rock act around in their heyday.
That said, the Faces' chaotic, ramshackle nature, so suited to the spontaneity of live performance, didn't always transfer well to wax. They never produced whole albums as transcendent as Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street, the Stones' great milestones of the early 1970s. However, The Faces came pretty damn close on 1971's A nod is as good as a wink...to a blind horse. It wasn't perfection, but perhaps something even better.
The first side of this record pretty much distills the multifaceted nature of The Faces into five very different songs. The opener, "Miss Judy's Farm," is a skanky strutter of a song that settles into a punishingly grinding groove which Stewart sings the shit out of. This is the kind of thing the Faces could do better than anyone else. The next song, "You're So Rude," features a vocal by bassist and songwriter Ronnie Lane (underscoring that this was NOT a Stewart backing band), detailing a naughty tryst on a rainy Sunday, and featuring the stellar organ work of keyboard maestro Ian McLagen. Part of the reason I like this song, beyond Lane's sly delivery, is that it is a much more realistic version of the scenario presented in Free's "All Right Now." The main character manages to take the girl home, but they have to do it quick before his parents get back.
Whereas the first two songs show off the Faces' well-known party animal reputation, the third track, "Love Lives Here," is a jaw-droppingly beautiful tender ballad whose power is increased after hearing two much rougher-edged tunes. The fourth, "Last Orders Please," is another Faces speciality, the ramshackle blues number. This Ronnie Lane tune careens around like an old wreck of a car dragging its tailpipe on the ground. It's no wonder that the first wave of punk rockers cited the Faces as an influence, since they were equally unafraid of letting a few bum notes and blown leads get in the way of an expression of true rocknroll spirit.
As great as the first four songs on side one are, they are merely prelude to "Stay With Me," an absolute barn burner that shows off the musical talents of the band, from Ron Wood's searing leads to Ian McLagen's keyboard chops to Kenny Jones' powerful drumming. On this rollicking track, with its stops, starts, and lead changes, the Faces seem to imply that the more chaotic playing on the previous track was all just an act, and that they can pull it together if the right mood strikes them. The band is so tight and the tempo so rapid by the end that this song usually gives me a little burst of adrenaline. Thus ends an album side that is among my favorites in my collection.
Side two can't hope to match that perfection, and doesn't, but it does start off with "Debris," a gorgeous Ronnie Lane ballad that ought to have become a standard. Since this band is the Faces, and not the Beatles, they follow this stirring tune with a so-so cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" that goes on way too long. It's almost as if they have to shift into bar band mode after such a display of sentimental emotion. (This live version is better than the one on record.) The Faces right themselves a bit with "Too Bad," a decent uptempo rave-up. The album ends with a real treat, Ron Wood's slide guitar on "That's All You Need." The song's alright, but the seriously bluesy slide guitar is positively awe-inspiring. If you ever wondered why the Stones chose Woody to replace the departed Mick Taylor on lead, this track pretty much explains why, and also sadly highlights how his talents have not been fully utilized in his current band.
Some albums are greater than the sum of their parts, and though A nod is as good as a wink has plenty of great moments, it succeeds as a total experience. If you are having people over and want to get the beer flowing and good times started, I can hardly think of a better record. There's no rock star preening or pretentious showing off, just gut busting rock and roll. Sometimes that's all you need.