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January 21, 2011

Punk and country mix in Social Distortion's long-awaited album

Marking the group’s return from a six-year hiatus, Social Distortion’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes offers their classic punk rock sound with some surprises. Highly reflective in substance, the album revisits lessons learned by these seasoned musicians, who’ve been on the punk scene for more than thirty years. Both earnest and honest, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a humble, accessible album, rather than an abrasive comeback.

Bluesy, country influences pervade the album, along with some occasional gospel riffs. Themes of bad-boy deeds, long drives, and lost loves complement the band’s new country blend. These qualities denote a turn in the group’s style, whose last album, 2004’s Sex, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, took a more alternative rock approach.

Yet, perhaps a product of the modern studio, the new sound lacks some grit, smoothed over by perfectly tuned backing harmonies. Not missing, however, is front man Mike Ness’s raspy leading voice, a much-welcomed and perfectly intact characteristic of old school Social D.

The album’s opener, “Road Zombie,” sticks to the group’s roots, with two minutes of hard-hitting punk rock guitar. But the subsequent tracks do not follow this familiar suit. “California (Hustle and Flow)” and later “Can’t Take It With You” introduce heavy, gospel-styled female backing vocals. These lie on top of a country-infused guitar sound that verges on classic southern rock. While this combo creates a couple of anthem-like jams, the only blunder comes when the recurring female vocals run over and above the melody, taking the tracks too far away from their punk core.

The next two tracks, “Diamond in the Rough” and “Machine Gun Blues,” demonstrate the album’s faults and successes in perfect contrast. The former presents a safely suburban croon; the latter, a rough and spirited rock song. The overdone backing vocals in “Diamond in the Rough” mimic a church choir, detracting from Ness’s weighty sound, which, in the case of this track, would benefit from a more stripped-down performance. While “Machine Gun Blues” also makes use of a multilayered vocal sound, it’s much less contrived. The coarser backing tones, coupled with a quick-paced guitar, sound like a soaring rebel howl, enhancing the song’s tough-guy vibes.

The album achieves artistic unity with its gem, “Alone and Forsaken,” a remade Hank Williams song. This punked-out cover of an old ballad brings cohesion to the country influences throughout other tracks. Social Distortion revamps a simple melody by quickening the tempo and adding an energetic rhythm guitar, layering new flair onto old.

The lyrics stay simple yet genuine throughout the album. Lines such as “My motor runs a lover’s heartbeat” from “Far Side of Nowhere” put an effortless spin on relatable experiences. However, this simplicity often turns to cliché. Lyrics like “put the pedal to the metal,” and “so close, yet so far, far away,” do little to show that Social D’s no rookie band.

Just as the album’s closer, “Still Alive,” declares, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes reasserts Social Distortion’s place in punk rock. Minor mixing flaws do inhibit the album’s successful merging of otherwise disparate influences. Entering the new decade, the group attacks their newest venture with relaxed vengeance, at to the benefit of the listener.

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