We begin our discussion of the Faces, as we must, with “The Rod Conundrum” — one of the thorniest in all of rock and roll lore. Cue the ESPN 30 For 30 voice over: “What if we told you that Rod Stewart was once every bit as cool, dangerous, and desirable as Keith, Kurt, or Kanye …”
Well, It actually happened. And it was amazing. And then there was the rest of it.
Going on 40 years now, starting around the time of his unfortunate-in-every-way 1974 solo release Smiler, Rod Stewart’s persona and output has ranged progressively from the simply silly to the utterly cringe-inducing. He has largely squandered, in artistic terms, the miraculous gift of his singing voice and engaged in some of the worst and most embarrassing instances of music-industry trend chasing and bombastic overexposure of the 1970s and ’80s, which is saying something given the era. He has made ersatz-disco albums, tedious synth pop, and, inevitably, collections (many collections) of karaoke-style Tin Pan Alley standards. He practically singlehandedly invented the “adult contemporary genre”, and not in a good way. In the process, he made himself fabulously wealthy and largely insufferable — as smug and pandering a heel turn as rock music has ever known.
But two facts remain, inarguable, incongruent, and puzzling.
First, Rod ALWAYS sings great, no matter what sort of shit he is singing or why. It’s commonly said that Rod could sing the phonebook and it would sound mesmerizing. Sometimes it sounds like he has done just this very thing, other times you wish that he had. But goddamn if that throaty, tuneful brogue is not to this day one of the most beautifully bruised instruments in all of music. He is a brilliant vocal interpreter, and no amount of ludicrous schmaltz can cut through the fundamental charm of his innate talent.
The second thing is, no matter what you think about him, he always has this: “Hey man, say what you will about ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.’ I was in the fucking FACES …”
This is the essence of “The Rod Conundrum.”
Consisting of five English lads possessing an earnest and touching sense of personal and musical comity, the Faces emerged in 1970 as ostensibly a reconfigured iteration of ’60s psych-pop acolytes the Small Faces, but were in fact a very different thing altogether. Featuring a rough, boozy, barrelhouse sound that would anticipate everything from the English pub-rock movement and its subsequent evolution into punk, to the warts-and-all abandon of American indie rock in the ’80s and ’90s, to the roots-influenced pop of Wilco and Okkervil River, the four albums they produced together were very nearly perfect — echoing in their own way the seamless but short run of brilliance achieved by the Velvet Underground.
Rod Stewart may have been tabbed as the emergent superstar, but each of the Faces was a heavy hitter in his own way. Lead guitarist Ron Wood never had a better-sounding gig than the Faces, but found his way into a more lucrative one, as Keith Richards’s handpicked choice to succeed Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones in 1975. Drummer Kenney Jones joined the Who following Keith Moon’s sadly predictable death in 1978, and virtuoso pianist Ian McLagan has gone on to achieve legendary status as perhaps the greatest honky-tonk style session player this side of the late and lamented Nicky Hopkins. But the band’s true visionary, and heart and soul, was bassist and songwriter Ronnie Lane — a brilliant, acerbic and sentimental chronicler of life lived through the rock and roll spirit. Lane’s acuity with tunes both wistful and propulsive provided the Faces their unmatched capacity for moving between high comedy and startling intimacy at the turn of a knife’s edge. Lane would later go on to make spirited records with his own band Slim Chance, and author the remarkable and underappreciated Rough Mix with his buddy Pete Townshend in 1977. Sadly he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years later and succumbed to that disease in 1997. An old soul at a young age, who was just getting better and better, it is sad to think of what we lost with Lane’s too young departure.
Through their brief four-album run, the Faces played a visceral and vulnerable version of soul, blues, and R&B that would ultimately embolden contemporaries like the Rolling Stones to embrace their id, and encourage followers like the Replacements to replicate their utterly unique brand of top notch songcraft and reckless spontaneity. In certain regards theirs is a difficult catalog to untangle: From the beginning, the Faces were more gang than formal band, a ragtag outfit that might be considered, for better or worse, a “collective” in these modern times. Consequently, early and contemporaneous Rod Stewart solo albums — specifically the incredible tandem of Every Picture Tells A Story and Never A Dull Moment are themselves functionally Faces records — including the same personnel, co-writes with Wood and Lane, and a sound so characteristic it could not come from any other band . We have decided not to rank those Rod solo albums here, but an argument could easily be made to the contrary. Any way you look at it, this was a crackerjack band at the peak of its powers, which for a small period of time defined everything that was great about the tradition before them, and eerily predictive of what would come next.
On record, the band seemed unstoppable. And as a live act, the Faces were peerless. Guitarist for R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, and countless others, and Minus Five frontman Scott McCaughey, who saw them many times, fondly recalls, “Considering the party atmosphere, and that the stage was a virtual bar, the Faces still somehow managed to play amazing shows. I mean, the high-times antics were the show in a lot of ways, but that belies the fact that they were a tight, kick-ass rock band.” And describing the Faces’ profound charm and importance with characteristic to-the-bone clarity, Paul Westerberg once put it this way: “There’s minstrel slides and pianos; beautiful ballads too. Rockers never heavy or plodding, ever-swinging thanks to Mr. Jones … Ronnie makes sure the songs are wistful, Stewart and Wood making sure they’re mighty … No glam but pub rock with flair … Try as I might to have made the ‘Mats in their image, we were just too damn angry. Faces — that’s my band.” McCaughey and Westerberg are right: For aesthetes and casual fans alike, you could scarcely do better than the Faces. So let’s dig into the concise catalog they left behind.
Start the Countdown here.
This sentiment is redoubled by the fine folks at Rhino Records who, upon releasing the excellent Faces compilation The Best of Faces: Good Boys … When They’re Asleep in 1999 marketed the record as “a true best-of from the same era as Every Picture Tells A Story and Never a Dull Moment.”