“Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” the first studio album from SoCal’s Social Distortion in six years, opens with instrumental “Road Zombie.” It’s a straight shot of adrenalin to the heart and it sets the tone for what’s ahead: a solid, energetic jolt of rock and roll tempered with experience and confidence.
Best known for its 1990 hit, “Ball & Chain,” Social D has shifted to Epitaph Records for the new release, plus switched a few members. This is the band’s first set with new bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hildalgo Jr. (he’s the son of Los Lobos’ David Hildalgo).
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Part of what has always made Social D’s own brand of rock special —regardless of the line-up—are the other elements the band drops in: the surf tones that echo pioneers like Dick Dale or the hardcore country/Americana sounds that twang throughout the tunes.
On “California (Hustle and Flow),” there’s a nasty ease that shimmies through the track that’s reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, as leader/founder Mike Ness sings “shake me on down the line,” bolstered by some righteous female backing singers. They return for the jaunty “Can’t Take It With You,” an upbeat tune about enjoying what you’ve got before you’re six feet under--or as Ness sings, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack.” It’s a great track, but I found myself wishing there was more rollicking Leon Russell-like piano lines on it, other than the ones that come in lightly about half-way through (in fact, we’d love to hear Russell cover this).
In addition to the consistently strong guitar work (check out the razor-edged opening on “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown”), the constant in Social Distortion is Ness’s instantly recognizable vocals. They’ve always sounded beaten down and rough around the edges, but there’s something raggedly warm and inviting in them as well. On “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” they sound even more pleasingly lived in.
Social D has the ability to go pop, as exemplified in the downright peppy ‘Far Side of Nowhere.” Ness and his baby are putting the pedal to the metal and leaving their troubles behind. Seldom has escape seeming so inviting.
But all is not right in the world. On “ Bakersfield,” Ness breaks into a speech in the middle, hoping his girl’s still left a spot for him on that big “California king-size bed,” while he’s stranded in Buck Owens/Merle Haggard country. Other tracks have a menacing air of desperation, such as “Alone and Forsaken”—the title tells you everything you need to know-- or “Writing on the Wall.”
There’s something comforting about the fact that “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” sounds like it could have been recorded 10 years ago. Social D has never been about chasing fads. It’s always been about putting on a good show and the albums are in service of that. It feels good to put on a new Social D album and discover that, in many ways, Ness and the boys have picked up right where they left off.