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.