Thursday, September 24, 2009

September 24: Social Distortion, "Social Distortion"

Artist: Social Distortion
Album: Social Distortion
Year: 1990
Label: Epic

Many will argue that with his sound and swagger, Johnny Cash was, in truth, the first "punk rocker." Approaching the country/western song style like none other before him, Cash has influenced nearly every musician in every genre that followed. Though many may not see any connection, the truth of the matter is, Johnny Cash's influence on the punk movement was rather significant, and it is perhaps no more clear than in the music of Fullerton, California's own Social Distortion. Flawlessly infusing elements of country and rockabilly into the distinctive L.A. punk sound, the band has created some of the most wonderfully unique songs in history. More musical than Black Flag, more introspective than The Clash, and more aggressive than The Gun Club, there are truly few other bands that compare to the brilliant sound of Social Distortion. Performing for more than thirty years, Social Distortion are one of the most highly respected bands in history, and their distinctive sound and style keep them in a musical class all their own. While their first few albums find the band trying to correctly convey their unique musical blend, it all comes together in magnificent fashion on their extraordinary 1990 release, Social Distortion.

Social Distortion are a bit of an anomaly, as they are one of just a few bands that formed during the late 1970's punk explosion, and are still making new music to this day. While they have refined their sound over the years, the music they make today is very similar to that of their early days, and this is another aspect that sets them apart from nearly every other band that has had such a long career. Perhaps the most significant difference in "Social D's" brand of punk rock is that they clearly pull a great amount of influence from artists like Johnny Cash and The Rolling Stones as much as they do from The Velvet Underground and The Clash. This purposeful incorporation of the country aesthetic makes their songs like none other, and in many ways, they are the epitome of the rockabilly/punk fusion. While one can find these roots in nearly every song the band has ever recorded, on Social Distortion, they leave nothing to question as they present an absolutely stellar cover of the June Carter penned, Johnny Cash classic, "Ring of Fire." The original emotion behind the song remains perfectly intact, yet the modern, more aggressive spin given by Social Distortion gives the song a new life, and it has endured as one of the greatest covers in music history. The fact that the band were able to so perfectly combine all of the elements of their influences is a testament to the amazing musicianship within the band, and on Social Distortion, the band has rarely sounded better.

With the long lifespan of the band, it is not all that surprising that there have been a number of lineup changes over the years. However, the quartet featured on Social Distortion had been consistent for the better part of a decade, and this lineup stands as the longest running single lineup in the bands history. Though he started off as the groups' bass player, Dennis Danell would usher in the signature sound of Social Distortion when he switched to lead guitar. His playing throughout Social Distortion is absolutely phenomenal, and it is Danell's tone and style that give the group much of their signature sound. Taking over bass shortly after Danell moved to guitar was the equally talented John Maurer. Fitting in perfectly with the other band members, Maurer gives the songs much of their soul, and the manner in which he interacts with Danell makes them one of the finest duos ever recorded. Drummer Christopher Reece proves to be one of the finest drummers of his generation in any genre. Easily able to play as hard, fast, or technically as necessary, it is largely due to his diverse abilities that enables the band to have more musical range than their peers. Truth be told, there are very few bands that have been able to so masterfully blend the punk style into anything beyond "standard" rock, and the fact that Social Distortion do so seemingly with such ease and skill catapults them high above their peers.

The one constant in Social Distortion throughout their entire thirty year career has been legendary frontman, Mike Ness. With his unmistakable, gritty, yet soulful voice, much like the music, Ness presents the perfect balance between country singing and punk-equse shouting. In many ways, Ness' vocals can be seen as the American Joe Strummer, and along with the similarity in delivery style, the amount of soul and conviction within the lyrics is shared between the two icons. Aside from his amazing voice, without question, Ness is one of the greatest lyricists of his generation. With many of the songs presenting some of the most brutally honest and easily relatable words ever written, Ness clearly has no issue turning the pen on himself and revealing his innermost thoughts. Whether it is the teenage, missed opportunity anthem of "Story Of My Life" or the hard-luck lament of "Ball And Chain," there are truly few bands, writers, or singers with the skill and impact delivered by Ness. Perhaps the most moving, yet overlooked song on the album is the truly heartbreaking tale found within "It Coulda Been Me." The song itself clearly speaks to Ness' former drug addiction, as well as questioning why he ended up with the life he has after comparing it to others he knows. The song is one of the most brilliant lyrics ever penned and though somewhat veiled behind the more aggressive tone of the song, it serves as a testament to the unparalleled talent that lives within Ness. Keeping the vision of the band focused for more than thirty years, with his stunning lyrics and fantastic voice, Mike Ness is easily one of the most important figures in the entire history of recorded music.

Social Distortion without question lives on the short list of bands and artists who are truly impossible to hate. Presenting one of the most unique musical blends ever, the band takes the rockabilly aesthetic and injects it with the angst and energy of the punk movement. While this progression took time to perfect, the end product is one of the greatest musical achievement in music history. The grouping of musicians on Social Distortion represents the longest running lineup of the band, and it is clear that their time together has enabled them to fully explore exactly how they wanted their music to sound. Each band member plays perfectly on every song, and the album is also superior to those of their peers in that the band is truly able to move as a single musical unit. Spearheaded by Mike Ness' distinctive vocals and his deeply personal, truly stunning lyrics, the music found on Social Distortion remains largely unmatched to this day. On their self titled release, the band sounds more focused and more together than ever, and the ten songs collected on the album easily represent the groups' finest hour. Clearly a moment when "everything comes together," Social Distortion's 1990 self-titled release is easily the best of their career, and stands as one of the greatest albums of the decade, as well as in the overall history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Ring Of Fire," "Story Of My Life," and "It Coulda Been Me."

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