Saturday, January 29, 2011

Social Distortion - "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes"

January 18, 2011
Epitaph Records

Rating: 3.5/5

Social Distortion released its first album in 7 years titled, "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes." In the 33 years Social D has been a band, they've blossomed from their Orange County punk roots, cross-pollinating with blues, rock 'n' roll, and a little outlaw country, making them a well-versed hybrid.
Social D's last record, 2004's "Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll," was a soundtrack of love and loss. He said in an interview that he wanted this one to be different. The album features 11 tracks, some of which the band has been playing live for several years, but all are finally recorded.
The album opens with instrumental track, "Road Zombie," going into guitarist/vocalist Mike Ness's first reminiscent story, "California (Hustle and Flow)." In this song, for the first time, a Social D tune has female backing vocals. I thought it was interesting, and being early-on in the album, a small part of me thought, "Ruh roh, this is going to be one of those 'over-produced' records, isn't it?" But listening through it, I realize Social D's had pro production for years and it's beginning to sound like more of a jammed-out Social D record rather than a harder-hitting, heavier, in-your-ears album like "White Light, White Heat, White Trash" was. Not to discredit that album, as it's one of my favorites, but it's evident that Ness and the guys are purposely taking it easy with this one, creating an ebb and flow.
"Alone and Forsaken," is a Hank Williams cover, and the only song on the album not written by Ness. It's Social D doing outlaw country with gain and distortion. It's a good cover, but a bit too reminiscent of their past homages, "Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash) and "Under My Thumb" (Rolling Stones) in that they stay pretty true to the song's original progression, only making it a little heavier and with Ness's signature gritty, edgy vocals, topping it off with that early punk feel.
The band's first single off the album, "Machine Gun Blues," was played live on Conan January 18, which was the band's first time in their career playing a song live on TV. The single is an anecdote about a day in the life of a gangster in 1934. Winos, junkies, pimps and whores are themes Ness has been visiting and revisiting for years. Whether or not he's as hard as he comes off in his music is something I cannot verify, but he has a knack for "tellin' ya how it is." My ears pricked up to an example of Ness's classic anecdote-between-songs during "Bakersfield," where Ness takes a break from the melody and says,
"So I walked out that lonely truck stop with my head hanging down, wonderin' how in the hell I got myself into this mess and more importantly, how I was gonna get myself out of it. So I wrote a song for you, baby girl and I hope when I return home, the locks ain't changed on the doors and there's still a spot for me on that big ol' California king-size bed."
I haven't been to a Social D show in at least three years, but I've seen them at least six times and Ness has an affinity for telling stories of the hard times he's been through (many are the same), which perhaps came to a head in 2006, when he began writing new songs for "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes."
Overall, the album is evenly blended with darker and lighter songs, heavier and softer; audible sinning and redeeming tales, creating a duality not new to Ness's songwriting, but hard to come by on most albums. I mean that a lot of punk records stick to a main theme (past Social D albums included), and it's uncommon there's a dark song and then a slower, bluesy, jammed-out tune with a piano solo. I give this album 3.5 stars out of 5. It's a nice blend of the Social D we all know and love and a more mature and evolved Social D, embracing and also emulating a broader range of influence on the new record. I recommend all Social D fans pick this one up and if you're open-minded enough about a band you love doing different things and experimenting throughout their career, this could be your favorite Social D record yet. But at the same time, there will be those who swear it's their worst because it's not "Mommy's Little Monster" or "White Light, White Heat, White Trash." It's got the blues and outlaw country influences of "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell" thought, so if you dug the transition between the self-titled and "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell," chances are you'll get into "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes."

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes:
1. Road Zombie
2. California (Hustle and Flow)
3. Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
4. Diamond In the Rough
5. Machine Gun Blues
6. Bakersfield
7. Far Side of Nowhere
8. Alone and Forsaken (Hank Williams)
9. Writing On the Wall
10. Can't Take It With You
11. Still Alive

Mike Ness: Lead vocals/guitar
Jonny Wickersham: Guitar
Brent Harding: Bass
Josh Freese: Drums, percussion (on the record)
David Hidalgo, Jr.: Drums, percussion (on the road)

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