Ashes to Diamonds
Some say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Such is the case with once mighty Orange County bad boys Social Distortion, an ageing group of sneering California punkers led by charismatic, jailhouse-tattooed front-man Mike Ness that by the late 90’s had suffered more than its fair share of hard knocks and broken bones. After surviving Ness’s early heroin addiction, a prison sentence and a myriad of personnel changes through the 80’s, Social "D" found themselves on the brink of mainstream success over a decade later riding a wave of publicity for their punk/rock masterwork Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (’92), garnering accolades from such widely diverse admirers as Bruce Springsteen, who was so enamored of Ness’s gritty outsider stance and angst-ridden lyrical concerns that he sang back-up on Ness’s first solo effort Cheating At Solitaire seven years later. Follow that by the loss of valuable career momentum from years of contract squabbles, a knuckleheaded decision to cow-tow to the commercial marketing juggernaut known as post-grunge by enlisting Michael Beinhorn to produce the long over-due and largely misguided White Light White Heat White Trash in ’96 and storm clouds were definitely back on the horizon. Finally, and tragically, it was the loss of schoolboy friend, founding member and guitarist Dennis Danell to a brain aneurysm at the age of 38 that brought the band to its knees. After battling two decades of love, loss and a fickle music industry, Social D staggered bruised and battered into the 21st century dragging their difficult past and a small but fiercely loyal fan base wearily behind them.
An energetic live compilation released in 2000 was a shot in the arm for fans and a welcome chance for the now venerable leader Mike Ness to take a breather and lick his wounds. Not that Ness hadn’t been busy, in fact, he managed to release two solo albums in ’99, the first a set of originals called Cheating At Solitaire, followed months later by the cover album Under The Influences. Cheating At Solitaire became an instant cult classic and remains the album that has come closest to successfully melding Ness’s diverse influences, from glitter to traditional country and bluegrass to old blues and rockabilly, genres that Ness had kept largely hidden in Social D, preferring instead to focus on punk and a Stone’s rock swagger. It seemed at the time that, as a viable creative vehicle for Ness’s talents, Social D might finally have run its course. Many fans assumed it a natural progression for Ness to concentrate on his solo work as he approached middle age.
That’s what makes Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll such a pleasant surprise. Seemingly out of the ashes comes a disc of new material that has all the brash, snotty, punker-trash-talking rock raunch fans had been yearning for since Heaven and Hell. The first cut, Reach For The Sky hints at a new direction only in the lyrics; sonically it’s a standard blistering Mike Ness set starter that does little more than prime the pumps for what’s to follow. But for longtime fans, lyrics like "I find myself now thinking twice, I never thought about no future, It’s just a roll of the dice, But the day may come when you’ve got something to lose" signal a newly introspective Ness musing on refreshingly adult concerns such as personal responsibility and loss.
The second cut, Highway 101 is the real new beginning here musically, and sets the stage for an ear-popping collection of sonic nuggets as fresh and inspiring as anything the band has recorded since Heaven and Hell and Ness’s best work since the solo masterwork Cheating At Solitaire. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll is smart, sexy, swaggering fun, and never skips a beat, careening from blistering power punk workouts like Don’t Take Me For Granted to more introspective songs like Footprints On My Ceiling and Winners And Losers, the latter a poignant lament on the responsibility of living with personal choices. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll is a revamped and recharged Social D with a new and hard-earned emotional lyrical maturity that lends a welcome weight and emotional complexity to Ness’s more familiar concerns of alienation, love lost and living on the edge. Ness still considers himself an outcast, and there’s a real sense of longing and loss here, but now there’s also time to reflect on love gained. Consider the final verses on Angel’s Wings, the albums last track: "I triumphed in the face of adversity, And I became the man I never thought I’d be, And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love, I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was".
If you think all this existential angst makes for a load of snoozer emo-angst, not to worry. There’s joy, life and energy bursting out in each of these tracks. There’s even some rare writing collaborations with the band; cuts like Nickels and Dimes, co-written with Danell replacement Jonny Wickersham bristle with a witty lyrical irreverence and a bratty punk/pop backbeat that keeps things upbeat and fun. Much of this record is an emotionally mature outpouring of a desire to reconcile the gains and losses of the past with the responsibilities of the present, all with a now patented flip of the middle finger from Ness at the future. Powerful, catchy guitars with a relentless backbeat supplied by new drummer Charlie Quintana and the return of charter member and bassist John Maurer make Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll a superlative tribute to late band mate Dennis Danell and one of the most musically rich, emotionally mature, and ultimately satisfying Social Distortion efforts to date. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing Posted: 2005-05-27 11:17:29
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