For a veteran band, there's often a fine line between writing and playing in a signature style and just going through the motions, and some of the time it's as much about attitude and intent as anything else. Social Distortion cut their first album in 1983, and well over 25 years later, they have a trademark style, if there's any such thing, a rough-hewn hybrid of punk rock guitar attack and rootsy melodies influenced by classic blues, country, and rockabilly. By now, Mike Ness and his bandmates could probably crank this stuff out in their sleep if they wanted, but 2011's Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is clearly the work of a band that still gives a damn about their rock & roll, no matter how familiar the surroundings. While 2004's Sex, Love and Rock 'N' Roll saw Ness digging deeper into personal concerns, Hard Times finds him stepping back a few paces; while "Can't Take It with You," "Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown," and "Still Alive" find Ness waxing philosophical, most of these songs exist in the world of cool cars, tough dames, and bad-luck guys who've been part of his regular cast of characters since the album Prison Bound in 1988. But if Ness isn't trying to reinvent Social Distortion in the 21st century, he still clearly knows what works for the band and what doesn't, and the songs are tough, memorable, and solidly crafted, while his guitar work remains solid, his vocals are expressive but with a shade less grit than usual and the faintest hint of vulnerability on songs like "Bakersfield" and a cover of Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken." This latest edition of Social Distortion -- Ness, guitarist Jonny Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding, and drummer David Hidalgo, Jr. -- can play their classic roots/punk sound with muscle and finesse and just the right amount of swing. And Ness produced the sessions for Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, showing he knows how to make this music work in the studio as well as he can make it come alive on-stage. Social Distortion sounds just as you would expect on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, but that's to say they sound like a fine and fierce rock & roll who have beaten the odds and stayed around to keep making music long after many of their peers gave up, and the commitment that holds them together can be heard bubbling under each tune.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming