From flannel to familial, Social Distortion grows up in 'Hard Times'

Courtesy of Epitaph

BY CHLOE STACHOWIAK
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 17, 2011

Social Distortion has come a long way since the ’80s: For the band, it was a decade of clattering symbols, coarse vocals and bold guitars. The pace was fast and the lyrics pumped with angst, as it spoke of “bruised and bloodied flesh” and not caring how worried “Mommy” was about the singer’s alcohol consumption. In other words, it was a decade of punk rock, and that rawness runs through albums like Mommy’s Little Monster and Prison Bound. Social Distortion was energetic, passionate and drenched in youthful defiance, embracing the Southern California punk genre with every shout and symbol crash.

Social Distortion


Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Epitaph

With the release of its latest album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes decades later, though, it’s clear the band has undergone a transformation. In this work, it has replaced the rapid percussion and musical chaos with softer melodies and singing, revealing a more laid-back, grown-up sound. Though the album starts with a track reminiscent of the old Social Distortion vibe – featuring a typically aggressive guitar part and a quick tempo – the rest of the songs embrace a new, mellow spirit seldom heard from the band before.

This gentler tone emerges right away in the second track, “California (Hustle and Flow),” with a pleasant mixture of slow percussion, understated guitars and choir-style vocals cooing in the background. The song basks in a calm and easy West Coast vibe – one not even broken by the guitar solo erupting halfway through. The part is neatly woven into the rest of the instrumentals, diversifying the song without sounding sloppy and out of place. It’s a track that any middle-aged man could comfortably listen to in his car, cruising with windows rolled down as his rebellious teenage son rolls his eyes.

“Diamond in the Rough” captures a similar easy-spirited tone. The instruments sway together in the breezy track, complete with harmonizing vocals and a light melody. It may not be pulsing with excitement, but the song is a pleasant listen, relaxed and carefree like a California summer.

After a few tracks, however, this mellow sound proves to be too much of a good thing. It’s difficult to tell songs like “Bakersfield” and “Writing on the Wall” apart from one another – the seamless way they flow together loses its relaxing appeal and instead borders on boring. Nothing sets these songs apart from the earlier ones in the album: they move with equally gentle beats, sluggish guitar parts and nostalgic lyrics. As the vocalist Mike Ness moans about being stranded in Bakersfield without his true love, it’s easy to feel stranded right there with him in the song’s repetitive nature.

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes isn’t totally barren of excitement, as the band’s edgier roots can still be traced in tracks like “Machine Gun Blues.” Here, the guitar part is stronger and tinged with attitude, unlike its passive role in other songs.

“Can’t Take It With You” also features more assertive instrumentals, and the strings wail along with the choir and piano throughout the track. The song’s style is shaded with the blues, and though it’s starkly different from Social Distortion’s past punk sound, it breaks up the monotony of the other tracks.

For early Social Distortion fans, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes may come as a shock. It’s soft, slow and even features the soulful voices of a background choir – strikingly different from their former grittiness. Nothing about the album inspires listeners to get tattoos or start bar fights, but instead it encourages them to lay on a beach and reminisce. This musical metamorphosis may be upsetting to those clad in denim and ragged flannel shirts, but to others, it’s a welcome change. After all, sometimes it’s just time to grow up.