Social Distortion has always been a band that blurs boundaries. Since their inception in the late '70s in Southern California, they have been a mainstay on the punk scene with a sound that mixes raw punk attitude with a liberal element of serious country and honky tonk. They have brought the greasers back to punk rock and made rockabilly merge with mohawks. Social Distortion albums are real genre benders, and Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, their first album in almost a decade (and surprisingly also their first on Epitaph Records) is no exception.
As is often the case in many (but not all) bands rolling through their third decade as a band, the years (along with some hard living) have had a mellowing effect of Mike Ness and co. Absent from the album is the raw energy that propelled some of their earlier releases, as are the general hard living tunes.
That doesn't mean the band has forsaken their rockabilly swagger, though. There are a pile of tracks that conjure up the badass swagger that the band may as well patent. The album opens with "Road Zombie," a driving instrumental song that personifies Social Distortion's distinctive guitar sound, and tracks like "Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown," "Alone and Forsaken" and their ode to a gangster that is "Machine Gun Blues" all readily implement the band's trademark attitude. But this record isn't strictly about that.
Mixed in is a bit of soul, with the twangy "California (Hustle and Flow)" and the gritty "Can't Take it With You," both of which add sweet soulful backing vocals. The record mixes in some low-key honky tonk on the broad six-and-a-half-minute country tune "Bakersfield," and "Writing on the Wall" is the sort of heartfelt bit of cowpunk that's suited for a dark night of driving down the backroads or for crying in a glass of cheap whiskey.
It's not all glitter, though. "Diamond in the Rough" sounds a bit too much like the classic rock that the band's earlier sounds rebelled against, and it simply falls flat, and "Far Side of Nowhere" just feels unmemorable.
The album wraps with "Still Alive," a song that might be the band's mantra; a tune that proclaims how Ness and Social Distortion have, over the years, fought the same fights again and again, only to emerge, if not always victorious, at least alive and kicking. It's a bittersweet song that recognizes that the band has been knocked down over and over throughout the years, but at the end it all, they're "still alive, talking that same old jive."
It's a fitting end for Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, an album that captures a band that's plodding along eloquently. The raw attraction and energy of Social D classics like "Mommy's Little Monster" and "Sick Boy" are long gone, as is the self deprecation of tunes like "Story of My Life." Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes may not be showing Social Distortion at the top of their game, but it captures a band that's still very much in the game.
Release Date: January 18, 2011