Face to Face has done something many bands have tried and failed to do.
Face to Face’s early albums were fast, melodic and stuffed with a keen sense of melancholy despite their upbeat sensibilities. The band moved away from that sound for 1999’s critically acclaimed but fan abhorred Ignorance is Bliss, but returned to their punk leanings thereafter. Since then, they’ve never been able to fully recapture or recreate the magic of Big Choice (1995) or their self-titled album (1996). Until, that is, Protection.
Protection marks their third full length since the end of their four-year break-up and it’s the first of those three to feel like a true Face to Face record. Perhaps having been re-inspired by their roots, Trevor Keith, Scott Shiflett and company have imbued this new record with not just the speed and immediacy of their earliest work, but have managed to reignite the spirit of those albums. Protection isn’t just a return to form; it’s an album of pain, anger and aging viewed through a youthful lens. While it does have missteps, Protection is a reclamation of sorts. It claims ownership of a sound left behind a decade and a half ago—not out of begrudging need to appease, but a genuine want to approach an old sound with a new perspective.
“Bent But Not Broken” kicks Protection off at a blistering pace. With Danny Thompson beating his snare drum like he caught it breaking into his house and Scott Shiflett (older brother of ex-No Use for a Name and current Foo Fighters guitarist, Chris Shiflett) picking through a bassline with intricate precision, this tune makes a massive statement. In the track’s opening seconds it confirms that Face to Face is back, and they’re kicking through eardrums to make damn certain we’re listening. It’s bleak. It’s catchy. It’s the perfect beginning to a record that aims to say something new while tying on its old dancing shoes.
The follow-up, “I Won’t Say I’m Sorry” is the strongest song on Protection. Only it’s unfortunate because it arrives too soon and immediately takes its place among Face to Face classics like “A-OK,” “It’s Not Over” and “Late” from Big Choice. A metronome-shattering tempo, a chord progression that manages to be upbeat and tearjerking all at once with the assistance of a simple riff, it’s simply too good to appear this soon. That mixed with Trevor Keith’s forceful but melancholy lyrics providing a melody to sing along to, “I Won’t Say I’m Sorry” could have been written in the early ‘90s, but becomes a poignant look back at times past. What follows a tune like this is the issue—the hope that every song will be this good with the knowledge that that feat simply can’t be pulled off—by anyone. And like it or not, despite the high quality of many of the songs moving forward, this one does not get topped no matter how hard we hope.
“See If I Care” brings back the speed and melody that is nothing less than a triumph of a band that’s never forgotten who they were. In fact, “See If I Care” could be a finger in the eye of folks who’ve given Face to Face such a hard time about their stylistic shifts since Ignorance is Bliss. Keith sings, “I’ve done everything for you/ I can’t break this despair/ Whatever it is/ You need me to give/ Just take it/ See if I care.” Considering most of Keith’s musical career has been dedicated to this band, it seems he’s grown tired of detractors trying to tear him down, and rightfully so.
The second third of Protection is made up of mostly serviceable punk tunes, but compared to the quality of the opening tracks, they don’t quite stand up to the goodness. “Say What You Want” is too neo-pop punk with its bouncy vibe and trite lyrics. The title track does a fine job as a speedy old-school SoCal punk rocker, but it has lapses in song structure that drag down the pace as the song moves from a slow bounce to a mid-tempo bop into the half-time drums that ramp up the speed and then repeats itself. “Fourteen Fifty-Nine,” as described in the lyrics, “Is a hate song”—yep, and it’s just fine. “It Almost All Went Wrong” is skippable.
“Keep Your Chin Up” is a fairly strong indictment of punk’s propensity to rely on lyrical clichés. In doing so, Keith’s constructed a funny, cliché-stuffed and genuinely positive punk rock song. It mocks disingenuous catch-all phrases in such a way that it actually makes them worth a damn. Just this once.
Protection closes out with “And So it Goes,” which is as classic in tone and execution as “I Won’t Say I’m Sorry,” but doesn’t quite match up to it. As far as punk rock closers go, this is one of the better ones. As far as Face to Face songs go, it’s damn good, but you’ll find better on this album as well as on their earlier records. But just because this doesn’t live up to a song that instantly can contend as one of the band’s best tunes, it doesn’t mean it isn’t great.
Face to Face has done something many bands have tried and failed to do. They’ve cast-off their more recent stylings and returned to form without coming off as a pack of nostalgic revisionists. The spirit of Big Choice and Face to Face is here, and it’s alive and well. The new perspectives brought to this old sound has revitalized it and made Protection relevant and has given their canon new life by bringing their neo-old-school sound to a new generation of listeners. It has its issues, but not a single one of them can besmirch this valiant effort at trying something new by trying something old again. We may not be able to call Protection Face to Face’s resurgent new album, but we certainly can consider it to be proof of the revitalization of their vision and purpose.