Before 1978, the year Social Distortion got together, the word punk was reserved for girlfriend stealers and kids who deface garden gnomes, not purveyors of fast and furious rock 'n' roll. When the Sex Pistols' anti-establishment anthems turned London upside down and the Ramones drenched New York in beer, pop hooks and crass humor, punk rock seemed a mysterious outgrowth of the urban condition. So when a punk band emerged from Southern California, the land of orange trees and sunny beaches, people took note. Punk could happen anywhere, even a small town or a church basement.
Led by singer Mike Ness, Social D imported the Pistols' sound and attitude and fused it with that of American outlaws like Johnny Cash. Over the years, Cash's influence grew, leading to the sound now known as cowpunk and the band's latest album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. The product of five years of soul searching and obsessive tweaking, the LP's powerful songs explore losses, regrets and against-the-odds survival.
Ness says the album also incorporates some sounds he'd downplayed in the past: those of New York City's punk progenitors. "I'm bringing elements of early New York '70s punk, influences that maybe haven't come out as prominently in my writing in the past," he told Spinner last year. "Some of the early first wave of punk was very blues-based rock 'n' roll, but it had this urban snottiness to it."
Hard Times sounds slick thanks to the studio tinkering, and any snottiness is thoroughly accessible, even lovable. For "California (Hustle and Flow)," Ness recruited a gospel-tinged girl choir, which infuses his bluesy tale of bad choices and hard knocks with a hint of hard-earned redemption. A cover of Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken" is so dark and knowing that it seems as if Ness wrote it himself, and "Machine Gun Blues" frolics in a fantasy world filled with supersized cars and gangsters who fit the old definition of punk, as well as the new one.