When punk-pop is played competently, it’s as immediately appealing as power pop — invasive hooks driven in deep by the charged playing. When it’s done well, as this quartet from Victorville in Southern California (unrelated to the ’80s Boston new wave band of the same name) demonstrates on Big Choice, the rush of hooks and energy can reach into the heart of rock’n’roll and tap a little of its essence.
Recorded as a trio and re-released on NOFX’s label, Don’t Turn Away is a stirring and exciting debut undercut only slightly by its overt stylistic debt to Hüsker Dü and Social Distortion (the latter in guitarist Trever Keith’s ragged-glory voice and the anthemic melodies co-written with bassist Matt Riddle). Like Northern California brethren Rancid, however, Face to Face faces east here, taking some of its useful sonic cues from late-’70s Britpunks. Kicking it strong and memorable, with taut, coherent aggression, Keith sings the spirited (but sensitive) slogans of songs like “I’m Trying,” “I’m Not Afraid,” “You’ve Done Nothing” and “No Authority.”
Welcoming the group to its new major-marketed label, the seven-song Over It lifts three of the best numbers off the first album and catches up on some of the prolific band’s early singles, including “A-OK,” a song recut for the second.
In the meantime, Face to Face had added a second guitarist, Chad Yaro, and outgrown its obvious reference points. With veteran producer Thom Wilson capturing a respectably commercial sound, Big Choice is nothing but high-grade intelligent purified punk-pop. A smoother character to Keith’s voice (frequently doubled or tripled by his bandmates) shakes off the Distortion, and the all-American melodies and adrenalized rhythms erase any foreign influence. As morally upright as Bad Religion but with a pop sensibility that’s closer to Weezer, Big Choice benefits from the band’s deft sense of song structure, knowing to release the singalong choruses at the precise moment they’re needed, and then not grinding them into the ground with endless repetition. Likewise, the arrangements have enough variety to keep things moving. Although odd sequencing gets the album off to a slow start, “It’s Not Over,” “Velocity,” “Debt” and “Late” bring it to a delirious boil by the end, followed by two bonuses: a remake of Don’t Turn Away’s “Disconnected” and a cover of the Descendents’ “Bikeage.” Very cool.
On the quartet’s self-titled disc, new bassist Scott Shiflett does nothing to slow down drummer Rob Kurth, who pushes the beat into third gear and keeps it there. But the production, by Keith and Jim Goodwin, doesn’t do the band justice, folding the instruments together with capturing them distinctly. What’s worse, his songs spend a lot of time attacking “you” (for prejudice in “Resignation,” drunken stupidity in “Walk the Walk,” despair in “Ordinary” and indecisiveness in “Complicated”) in a passive-aggressive self-effacing sort of way; if the melodies were up to snuff, their impact would be stronger.
The 18-track live disc, recorded in LA in 1997, energizes even weaker material with a breathless roar of rock jizz. Keith’s relaxed (if not exactly on key) singing is the band’s most distinctive feature; by not screaming, he stays in control and keeps from drowning in the music.
Shiflett and new drummer Pete Parada are beneficial contributors to the songwriting on Ignorance Is Bliss. Without really changing direction, Keith’s lyrics here are more verbose and emotionally intricate, and the music follows suit, moving far enough off the punk dime (without losing any of its fire) to remove Face to Face from the realm of punk-pop. The production (by Keith, Shiflett and engineer Chad Blinman) is crisp and clear; reverb on the vocals is surprising but effective.
Standards & Practices is a covers album, with FtF interpretations of songs by the usual suspects (Fugazi, Ramones, Jawbreaker, Pixies) as well as some surprises (Smiths, Pogues, Jam, INXS).
Without bearing a distinct resemblance to each other, Face to Face and Social Distortion have grown so much in the same direction that they might as well be the same band. Reactionary follows the basic blueprint of Ignorance Is Bliss, only with less ambition to the song structure and the vocals mixed further back. Otherwise, it’s a killer, another potent dose of sizzling soul-searching (“Out of Focus,” the tremendous “Icons”), diffident finger-pointing (“Think for Yourself,” “You Could’ve Had Everything”) and relationship dissection (“Just Like You Said,” “Best Defense”). Ferocious fun and close to the band’s best.
Yaro quit the band prior to the recording of Reactionary but was ultimately persuaded to play on it. Once it was done, however, Face to Face became a trio. That lineup lasted for one more album, How to Ruin Everything; the band called it quits in late 2004. Everything Is Everything is a 24-song compilation (with DVD).