Being a high schooler in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early – very early – 2000s wasn’t easy. As a budding drummer, I drew influences from the classics instead of the contemporaries, so while bands like Blink 182 and Green Day might have had pretty good skin-smackers, I would dismiss the bands outright, saying, “Gimme Bonham or Moon any day!” This was a point of amusement to my friends, who would snicker outright at some of my music purchases; I can distinctly recall going to a Best Buy to pass some time with a friend, and the amount of ribbing I got for acquiring the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work and the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse was relentless. “Oh, is this ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’?” he asked, completely straight-faced, as I drove us back home. Incredulous that he would know this, let alone before I did, I responded in the affirmative. “Oh, I love this song.” He repeated this once more before I caught on: he was simply eyeing the back of the CD case.
My tastes have since matured, but – as much as I like them – the Black Crowes don’t have the same joie de vivre as the Faces (and whoever the modern day Black Crowes is, well, I don’t even want to know), and when I listen to any of the Black Crowes’ albums, I can hear traces of certain bands – Faces, the Rolling Stones, some Little Feat – but I too often get frustrated and simply go for the originals.
Needless to say, I spend several minutes in my car before heading out for a destination in search of the perfect album to listen to, before throwing my hands up in frustration and saying, “I have no idea what I want to listen to!”
In the increasingly rare instances when I fall back on the Faces, I find myself gravitating toward this, their seminal break-out album. They’d released two albums before this – their self-titled debut and Long Player – but both were received somewhat tepidly, which brings me to an interesting point: there was a time when Rod Stewart wasn’t as well-known (or well-regarded) as he is today. Hard to believe, but the Faces struggled to find an audience, especially in England, their home country, though America embraced them more warmly. So Wink was their first, most cohesive album, due in no small part to production wonderboy Glyn Johns. There’s a fair amount of grit with just a pinch of ramshackle, striking the perfect balance that was so sorely lacking on their first two albums. It’s evident in particular on opener ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’, with a dirty guitar riff from Ronnie Wood before Stewart howls on about being a submissive sex slave to a dominatrix named Judy. (This ain’t no ‘Maggie’s Farm’!) The band locks into a groove for a minute or two before Wood brings things to a halt, Kenney Jones’ drums clatter in, and the quintet barely makes it into the double-time coda, with Ian McLagan’s electric piano well to the fore.
Ronnie Lane turns up the charm and the humor with ‘You’re So Rude’, a delightful song about sexytimes with his ladyfriend, who – in a rare display of role reversal – is the prime mover in the act, hoping to be done before her family gets home. ‘Love Lives Here’ is a surprisingly slow song that touches on nostalgia, with the physical destruction of a house serving as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship. Stewart dials back the gruff growl from the album opener, even allowing a tinge of sadness to infiltrate his good natured bonhomie, while Wood’s and McLagan’s guitar/keyboard interplay is delightful. It leads into ‘Last Orders Please’, penned solely by Lane, which takes the nostalgia and sadness from ‘Love Lives Here’ and amplifies it into the next part of the grieving process: the drunk stage. While propping up a bar, the protagonist runs into his ex; the two engage in a bit of emotional foreplay before she leaves him high and dry once again. Has he learned his lesson? (The song was derived from an earlier song titled ‘I Came Looking For You’, which, apart from the melody, has little in common with the finished version.)
Then we get to the song that everyone came for: ‘Stay With Me’, a raunchy, good-timin’ rocker that everyone who knows anything about the Faces – or even Rod Stewart – is familiar with. Written about a reveler who had a bit too much to drink and takes a random woman upstairs for a few seconds of pleasure, the protagonist preemptively rejects any outpouring of emotion, making it strictly clear that this was a one night stand, and nothing more. There’s some fine slide guitar work from Wood, and the instrumental coda, with each band member getting a few bars to solo in, before it all comes to a glorious, crashing close. ‘Stay With Me’ gave the Faces their one and only US single, and was instrumental in providing its sister album some much-needed sales.
Side Two isn’t as outstanding as Side One, though Lane’s ‘Debris’, obliquely written about his father, is perhaps his finest song ever written, and the others provide a gorgeous, restrained backing, letting Lane pour his heart out, though Stewart harmonizes beautifully with him on the choruses. The Faces weren’t well-known for their ballads, but this rivals only ‘Ooh La La’ as the top of the heap. It’s followed clumsily by a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, which benefits somewhat from Johns’ production, but it’s a fairly mundane version that would have been better released as a B-side instead of occupying precious album space. ‘Too Bad’ returns us to the well-worn exuberance of a Faces show, with Stewart lamenting their poor treatment by the upper crust at a party they crashed. Their inebriation – and Stewart’s regional tongue – was their downfall, and the worst part about it was that he didn’t even get to shake a leg. The album closes with ‘That’s All You Need’, a slide guitar workout with lyrics about Stewart’s musician brother, run down by the pressures of reality. Stewart offers him a “cup of coke” and shows him a good time out on the town – a simple solution indeed. Wood’s deft guitar work is the star of the show, though the others get a chance to play in the extended instrumental outro, which even includes some steel drums from Harry Fowler.
I’m having a hard time trying to decide which Faces album is their best – is it Wink or the well-polished follow-up, Ooh La La? While both have their fair share of excellent tracks – and one duff track each (‘Memphis, Tennessee’ on Wink, ‘Fly In The Ointment’ on Ooh La La) – my decision is gravitating towards Wink, as it’s a cohesive, fun, and well-oiled album. Ooh La La may have been more mature, with better songwriting all around, but the Faces sound like they’re having a blast here, as if they were recording this album simply as an excuse to go out on the road and have a good time with anyone who’s willing to partake.
The Faces’ A Nod is As Good As a Wink…to a Blind Horse represent The Faces at their finest moment in the history of their all too brief career. While they went on to produce another fine album with Ooh La La, none of the band’s output captured the heart of the band as stupendously as A Nod…did. This album contains all the promise of an up and coming band with none of the internal conflicts that inevitably find their way through final albums.
The album starts with “Miss Judy’s Farm”, a raucous tune that prepares you for the inherent legitimacy of the blues-funk-rock band that never rose beyond the perfect “Stay With Me” in Billboard status and which plagues the band to this day. It behooves this writer to think of what may have become had The Faces had the proper stars aligned at the time of their existence. Their legion of fans swear that rock and roll suffered an organ loss, which was never transplanted or replaced when the Face’s demise came about and will also attest to the body of work that The Faces left behind and its greatness.
A Nod…’s single, “Stay With Me” is the band’s most recognizable song, one that epitomized the intent of the band as well as carved the path that they would follow. A Nod…, then, would be an excellent choice for remastering, as has been done by Blonstein’s Audio Fidelity label. The 24k+ Gold Compact Disc reissue of Faces’ A Nod is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse (titles!) show off the label’s foray in new audiophile reproduction with its use of gold surfacing that eliminates surface irregularities found on standard aluminum CDs. Add to this, HDCD encoding and excellent mastering, the album takes on a new life not heard before. Fans of DCC will notice familiarities with the packaging.
The album’s opening track, “Miss Judy’s Farm”, immediately reveals the clarity of the disc as you hear in- studio howling and commenting likely by Stewart. The howling is not such a big deal by itself but the fact that you can hear it so clearly lets you know what a ride you’re in for. The stereo effects are superb and provide great depth normally attributable to SACDs. The keyboards are lush and rich, Lane’s bass lows are deep and full-bodied, the drumming felt, and Stewart’s vocals are glorious, forefront as intended. You can hear Wood’s great guitar playing (a talent that we all know that his stint with the Stones stifle), and which is revealed (no other word can explain what is happening here) on this remastering.
“Stay With Me” leaps out of the speakers, “Memphis” is revelatory with the Faces’ stunning rendition of Berry’s classic, the perfect “Too Bad” with its SACD-like reproduction (it has to be heard to be fully enjoyed; every instrument is sound shaped), and “That’s All You Need” with its strolling slide from Wood.
This same skill, care, and technology have been applied to The Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute album which yielded the hits “What a Fool Believe” and “Minute by Minute.” The band’s second phase career push absorbed soul with vocals expertly handled by the addition of Michael McDonald several albums back of this one, who also provided much of the written tunes with the rest penned by original band mate, Patrick Simmons. This album revitalized The Doobie Brothers with good reason; the tunes showed a band capable of renewal. Although the shift in sound occurred with Takin’ It To The Streets, it wasn’t until Minute by Minute that they found the comfortable niche. They didn’t abandon their roots entirely although it would be easy to think that happened with Minute by Minute.
The Simmons’ penned song, “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels”, is a nice little soul number that merged their past rock sound to create a new Doobie hybrid, one that carried for a few years after the release of Minute by Minute. But it was the McDonald tunes that McDonald also sang on that made the grade for the band.
The Audio Fidelity 24k+ Gold remastering process makes this recording buzz. The uses of the various instruments by the band are allowed to expand. From Baxter’s wonderful guitar work, especially let loose in the great sounding “How Do The Fools Survive” to the horns in the same song; from McDonald’s rich voice and keyboard work to Tiran Porter’s bass, Minute by Minute is beautifully reproduced. With the album’s depth in musical style, the Audio fidelity reissue draws out the richness. The jazz/soul tunes such as “Here to Love You”, and “Minute By Minute” are revitalized. The country flavour of the instrumental “Steamer Lane Breakdown” is literally a sound sculpture with the recording’s various instruments (fiddle, guitars, banjo) being coaxed out of the grooves.
Both albums’ artwork and originality have been preserved and a slipcase added to enhance the package thus preserving your investment dollars. Both albums are classics. Both reissues are classically striking.
Quite frankly, with this depth of remastering, who needs SACD? That’s a serious statement but then these are serious reproductions. Let’s hope that there are more in the pipe. If they all sound this good, stereo purists and fans will profit immensely. It is gold, after all.
Well, now this doesn’t make any sense at all. Rod Stewart has three solo albums out, all of them excellent. With the release of A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … the Faces, with Stewart singing lead, have three albums out, each of them duller than the one that preceded it, and with the first one having been none too great to begin with.
It is apparent that when Stewart takes charge of his music he elevates the musicianship of everyone around him; when he submerges himself in the artistic group democracy of this particular band he only succeeds in bringing himself down to the level of the group’s lowest common denominator. Thus, at the same time he is riding the success of an intensely personal and beautifully crafted solo album, Every Picture Tells A Story, he participates in the making of another almost completely devoid of personality, character, depth, or vision.
The Faces do not, as some have recently alleged, play badly. They are more than competent, especially at creating a mid-Sixties Rolling Stones-styled groove, as their excellent version of “Memphis” proves.
But like most rockers who just barely miss their mark, they can’t sustain ideas, so their music tends to be filled with bits and pieces — a bright 30 seconds there, an exciting riff here — and then back into a basic track that is usually melodically undistinguished, unimaginatively arranged, and sounds as much of a bore to listen to as it must have been to record.
“Miss Judy’s Farm” starts off strong enough with some Ron Wood guitar and then the whole band riffing behind him. But as soon as the vocal commences, the song emerges as the dog that it is, and what started off sounding funky now just sounds like rock band hacking. “Stay With Me” is a better example of a riff song, but isn’t all that exciting either — the ending is an obvious cop from Stewart’s own arrangement (performed with the Faces) of “It’s All Over Now,” from Gasoline Alley.
“That’s All You Need” contains something of the groove heard on “Cut Across Shorty” and “Every Picture Tells A Story,” but there is absolutely no song present here. Ron Wood plays some great slide guitar, especially on “Memphis,” but his bashing about on this cut is just plain awful.
Perhaps the Faces recognize that their days with Stewart are numbered. For on this album Ron Lane makes his debut as a regular lead singer with the band, taking his turn on, “You’re So Rude,” “Last Orders Please,” and “Debris.” And not badly either. He has plenty of charm, some real wit, and considerable style, if not a great lead voice, and he certainly bears watching in the future. In some perverse way, it occasionally seemed to me that his efforts were at least more natural and less forced than Stewart’s on this particular album. His best number is “Last Orders Please.”
I admit being a sucker for revived oldies, but the only thing that is going to keep me coming back to this album is the beautifully structured and excellently pérformed rendition of “Memphis.” It is only here that the band creates a fully satisfying groove and sustains it for any length of time. Stewart does his bit and is gone and Wood carries it very nicely with plenty of help from the rhythm section and Ian McLagan on keyboards.
The gap in achievement between Stewart’s albums and the Faces is too great for it to go on. Glyn Johns was added as this album’s co-producer in an attempt to break the mold of the last two albums. As a result, the new record certainly sounds good enough, but that seems to be about all that he was able to add to it.
For the present, First Step remains the Faces’ best album and I am left wondering how they intend to deal with that fact.