Social Distortion are one of the giants of punk rock music but their appeal goes far beyond the typical genre fans. Anyone who has ever been to one of their shows and looked at the people who are there might notice that Social Distortion draws quite a diverse audience. The first time I saw them live, back in ’96, I was down in front moshing it up with the rest of the punks and really didn’t pay attention to the varied crowd so it wasn’t until my second show, in ’04 that I really took notice. I was standing with a group of people my age (late twenties, early thirties), the pit was filled with teens, to my left was a cluster of middle aged men still wearing the suits that they’d worn to work that day and back by the bar were a couple of old guys sporting Hank Williams t-shirts, not what I expected at a punk show. I’ve managed to see Social Distortion live four times since then and I’m still amazed by the varied crowds. I’ve seen middle aged suburban house wives with young kids in tow, drunken rednecks, frat boys and sorority girls mingled in with the punks and they were all singing out the lyrics to “Ball and Chain”.
I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised by the wide ranging crowd when you think of the music that Social Distortion has released throughout their thirty two years of existence. They are a band with many influences and Mike Ness has never shied away from having those influences heard. Throughout their career they have released albums as varied as the people who gather to see them play. “Mommy’s Little Monster” is So-Cal punk, “Prison Bound” could be considered country, or more accurately Cowpunk, “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” and their self titled album had a rockabilly feel to them and “White Light, White Heat, White Trash” and ” Sex, Love and Rock-n-Roll” had more of a rock-n-roll vibe to them. But through all the changes in genre, they have maintained a core sound that is Social Distortion and keeps us all listening no matter what category the newest release falls under.
Now you may be asking “What category does their new cd fit into?” or maybe you’re not but I’m going to try to explain it anyway. “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”, Social Distortion’s first album since ’04, is a new beast all together. It has things in common with “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” and “Prison Bound” but this release is more bluesy. The bass heavy sound from their last two cd’s has been toned down in favor of a softer, more melodic approach and the vocals have been brought to the forefront. Mike Ness’s singing has never sounded better than it does on this album. In addition to cleaning up the mix a bit (Mike Ness produced the disc) Social Distortion have added piano and female backup singers to this release, making it stand out from their previous forays into this style. Lyrically they keep to their normal topics, hard living, love and loss, which is good because when Mike Ness starts singing about rainbows and smiling happy children he will have finally lost me.
To me, this new(ish) sound suits the band but that doesn’t mean that “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” doesn’t have a few missteps. Rather than break down each song I’m just going to describe a few for you.
“Far side of Nowhere” is one of two tracks on here that I’m not thrilled with. This song starts out with a guitar part that sounds like it was written by Sheryl Crowe, it’s not a bad song it just sounds too happy and doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.
“Can’t Take It With You” is the other one, and this one I don’t like much at all. Musically it has a “Bad Luck” sound to it but what kills the track are the lyrics, the chorus consists of the back-up singers repeating the song title over and over for twenty seconds and the rest of the lyrics are cliché ridden. It feels like this song was just thrown together at the last minute to fill up space on the cd.
The rest of the songs on this disc are all very good. My favorites are “Bakersfield”, a long (six and a half minute) bluesy track that showcases Mike Ness’s singing, doesn’t overuse the back-up singers and paints a great picture of a man trying to get home to his love. “Writing On The Wall”, another story of lost love, with an awesome melody and some sparse piano and “Still Alive”. This is one of the harder songs on the disc, again it uses the back-up singers perfectly and has an interesting piano outro at the end.
Normally, if I were to buy an eleven song cd and liked 10 of them, I’d be pretty stoked about the disc but that is not entirely the case with “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”. First off, Mike Ness and company have had roughly six years to make this disc and it still has some filler on it. Besides putting the sub-par “Can’t Take It With You” on the release, the first song “Road Zombie” is an instrumental and if you’re anything like me, a Social Distortion song without Mike Ness’s vocals doesn’t really count. They also added “Alone and Forsaken”, a cover of a Hank Williams Sr. song that was released as a bonus track on “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” back in ’92. I know it was on the Japanese version of the album only but if you want to make your import and b-sides available, you gather them up and release a cd full of them, like Rancid did a few years back, not stick one in the middle of your new release. The iTunes version of this album has three more tracks, two very good new songs (“Take Care Of Yourself” and “I Won’t Run No More”) and a honky tonk version of “Down Here With The Rest Of Us” (similar to the version of “Ball and Chain” that Mike Ness rerecorded for his “Under The Influences” album). To me it would have made better sense to use “Alone and Forsaken” as one of the iTunes exclusive songs and add another original to “Hard Times…” but perhaps that’s just my opinion.
Even with the couple of problems that I have with this release I’m still very happy with it and will be listening to it over and over (with the exception of “Can’t Take it With You) for many years to come. I’m guessing their next disc (if they stick with the same recording schedule, the next cd won’t be out sometime around 2017) will be perfect.
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