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Band perseveres through Hard Times

January 21, 2011

by Robert Wilson, ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

It is a Herculean task to name more than a handful of punk bands who have been not only active, but consistently successful, for three decades. One such group of legends is Social Distortion, a group of Californians who released their seventh studio album, “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” Tuesday. 

Where countless bands have constructed entire careers on simple three-chord riffs or even just playing as fast and reckless as possible, Social Distortion, led by vocalist/guitarist Mike Ness, has constructed a unique style combining Rolling Stones-inspired blues rock, the bite and swagger of punk and the heartfelt soul pioneered by outlaw-country legends like Hank Williams Sr., from whom the band even covers “Alone and Forsaken” toward the end of the record. 

From the start of the album, marking the debut of Ness as producer, it is clear time has not been an obstacle. The instrumental first track, “Road Zombie,” features a warm, dynamic guitar lead over growling rhythm guitar and pounding drums, evoking images of the dirty, weather-beaten stretch of highway Social Distortion has spent the last 30 years traveling.

The song that follows, “California (Hustle and Flow),” takes a more classic-rock route while exuding streetwise attitude as a gospel choir, used for the first time in the band’s history, harmonizes in the background. Ness admitted the song is homage to the Stones, yet it has a signature Social Distortion sound. 

Following “California” is another album highlight, “The Sweet and Lowdown,” a catchy, words-of-wisdom sharing tune that goes from up-tempo rock verses to a soft and smooth chorus so seamlessly Ness almost sounds like’s whispering to his troubled friend as he requests them to open up.

The subject material does not tend to drift very far from autobiographical reflection and relationship woes, save for Ness’ space to self-indulge in the fast-paced gangster fantasy “Machine Gun Blues.”

However, countering the lack of lyrical range is one of the strongest facets of the album in Ness’ impassioned, time-and-booze-weathered voice. Spilling unrestrainable emotion with every cry, Ness is able to sell his words with ease, making it that much easier to draw the listener into his ageless stories.

“Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” is full of strong moments, from the downbeat, lonely-hearted “Bakersfield” to the gospel choir’s infectiously sassy return in the chorus of “Can’t Take It With You,” a reminder of how our treasured material possessions won’t follow us into the grave.

The album closes with “Still Alive,” a perfect metaphor for Social Distortion’s immortal career, declaring “I’ll be here to the bitter end…with a guitar in my hand.”

While the album is heavier on the country and classic-rock influences than fan-favorites such as “Story of My Life” and “I Was Wrong,” there is still plenty of devil-may-care attitude to make the best of both worlds. For both longtime fans and unfamiliar listeners, as well as those who want a harder edge to their country-rock, “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” is a more-than-worthy effort.

E-mail comments to rww015@latech.edu.

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