When the manager for the record store I work at handed me a promo of the new Social Distortion, I accepted it with a painful grimace. It was the same kind of cringe you get when and old friend wants to hang out even though every time you do something horrible happens and you vow never to repeat that mistake. “Sure,” I thought, “A new Social Distortion, maybe it’ll be good. Maybe I won’t get burned this time.” I popped it into my car’s CD player and braced myself for the next 30 minutes.
The opening track “Road Zombie,” a blues-based rock instrumental kicks off the album and is a great song to be speeding down the highway to. “Alright,” I thought, “Off to a good start.” Then, BAM! Track number two, “California (Hustle & Flow)” starts up and the problems begin. Ness sounds tired, bored and all-around disenchanted with what he’s singing. Which is my problem with most Social Distortion albums in the past decade, but I’ll get back to that in a second. Despite Ness barely making an effort, this song could have been pretty cool. The guitar riffs and soulful back-up singers give the song a great, Rolling Stones circa Let It Bleed sound.
The same effect is created on “Can’t Take It With You;” a powerful country-blues song about, you guessed it, not being able to take material possessions with you when you’re dead. There’s even a great piano solo in the middle of the song that would make Billy Preston smile. Unfortunately, just as one can’t help but laugh at Mick Jagger when he sings “What’s a poor boy to do but to sing in a rock’ n roll band?” it’s hard to believe Mike “Merchandise” Ness is singing a song about living a life of simplicity. “Hey kids, you can’t take that $70 Social Distortion comforter from Hot Topic with you when you die, but thanks for buying anyways!” Right.
With the exception of the single, “Machine Gun Blues” those are the highlights of the album. I can’t really say I’m disappointed in it, because the truth is, I didn’t have high expectations to begin with. When you pick up a Social D album you know what to expect: mid-tempo beats with rolling guitars, and lyrics about running from the law, punks, greasers, and heartbreak. Which brings me back to my earlier point, it’s getting old and even the band seems to think this. Or at least it seems that way when you listen to the albums. There’s nothing exceptionally special about the music and Ness’ voice sounds strained and bored.
Now, before all of you leopard-print creeper wearing, pomped hair combing, skeleton with a martini glass tattoo sporting cats and gals start getting all huffed up, I realize it can’t be the same band since the death of original guitarist Dennis Danell in 2000. However, even by then I had stopped listening. It’s not that I want the boys in Social Distortion to change their sound and put out a hip-hop album or anything, but I don’t think it’s much to ask our musicians to challenge themselves a little bit. Hell, at least sound like they’re having fun making music that means the world to their fans.
The closing track, “Still Alive” is a sentimental ballad about having lived the hard, street life and taking the punches that it hands out. On one of the closing lines, Ness quietly croons, “The times have changed my friend but I’ll be here ‘til the bitter end,” and the listener can’t help but agree and ponder. Yes, the times have changed and Social Distortion is still around, but the question remains: why?
Review by Mat Weir