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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Social Distortion

Greatest Hits (iTunes version)

Review by Rick Damigella

For fans of the Orange County, California punk rock scene, it may seem hard to believe that nearly three decades have passed since Social Distortion came on the scene. Never has a band gone through so many starts and stops to end up succeeding in spite of itself. Along the way they have built a fiercely loyal following of fans, influenced the current generation of punk bands and amassed what is far too succinctly summed up as their biggest hits in this new set.

Greatest Hits, according to band leader Mike Ness, really refers to songs that were popular with radio. For anyone not from Southern California, thanks can go to the airplay given the band by So Cal’s world famous KROQ-FM, where the majority of these songs received heavy rotation. Presented chronologically, these truly are the biggest hits casual listeners would want to hear, but done with a slight twist to get hardcore fans to purchase this set. Of the 12 tracks here, four are the original recordings, six are newly recorded versions, one is a new original number and (on the iTunes version) there is one new cover song.

What is interesting is the band’s best known songs are the ones that get the new recording treatment. That’s something that frankly didn’t need to be done to these classics, but the results are truly satisfying to anyone who counts themselves a Sick Boy or Sick Girl (the biggest fans of the band) who know these songs inside and out. The two new recordings show that despite all the years and all the tears gone by, Social Distortion may be one of the most underrated bands of the modern rock era but they are still running on all cylinders.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Another State of Mind
The album opener goes back to the band’s more punk rock roots with a number that will evoke images of first generation punk kids slam dancing in overly crowded dingy clubs behind the Orange Curtain. There were no mosh pits, this wasn’t the “OC.” New York had the Ramones, England the Sex Pistols and Orange County had Social D.
Mommy's Little Monster
The title track of the band’s debut album already shows them maturing in sound from its hardcore roots. It features more melody, a tighter arrangement and Mike Ness’ vocal style.
Prison Bound
Here marks the turning point in the sound and thus the legend of Social Distortion. Mike Ness had his share of scrapes with the law and the everyman character he sings as acts as a channel for the disaffected rebels and toughs who would latch on the bands evolving cow-punk sound. One of their lesser radio hits, the song is very bluesy in a countrified, electrified way. Johnny Cash gets name checked with a nod to “Walk the Line” which foreshadowed one of Social Distortion’s signature numbers to come.
Story of My Life (New Recording)
1990 saw the mainstream popularity of Social Distortion explode with these next two songs. Under the production eye of Dave Jerden, the band’s country punk sound was solidified on the self titled album from which this (and the next two songs) are taken. Mike Ness sings his “outlaw love song” just as well now as he did 17 years ago. The production is more open than the original, with extra room for the instruments to breathe. This, like most of the new recordings, has a very live feel to it, though not in a true live concert sense.
Ball and Chain (New Recording)
What is arguably the band’s signature song doesn’t depart too far from its roots, but feels improved after nearly two decades of live performances. The instruments resonate beautifully and don’t suffer from overly compressed sound. Put on a set of head phones and enjoy the electric guitar in the left channel and a pristinely mixed acoustic in the right. The untrained or casual listener might not be able to tell the difference between this and the original, but hardcore fans will enjoy hearing the tough guy sensitivity Ness has garnered in the intervening decades since this song first hit the airwaves.
Ring of Fire (New Recording)
Few other bands have paid the respect due the legacy of the Man in Black with a cover song like Social D has. Johnny Cash’s signature song about falling in love in the hands and vocal chords of Mike Ness became a passionate punk ballad that holds up in this note for note new recording.
Bad Luck (New Recording):
A short two years after their self-titled breakthrough, Social Distortion followed up with Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell which further grew their dedicated following. This anthem for the Sick Boys reached #2 on the modern rock tracks in 1992 and 15 years later new guitarist Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham pulls off a note for note reading of the late Dennis Dannell’s guitar solo.
When the Angels Sing (New Recording)
By 1996, Social Distortion’s sound had come full circle to combine their punkier roots with their countrified sound. Played side by side, it is hard to tell where the original recording and this new one deviate. It is still one of the band’s strongest statements.
I Was Wrong (New Recording)
Of all the new recordings, this one seems to stand out the most in terms of a noticeable difference. The guitars feel more open and almost more retro sounding. Mike Ness’ vocals seem more like the singer he is today, even compared to just 11 short years ago on the original. Slight vocal flourishes in his delivery punctuate this and makes one feel like this could have come from one of the band’s earlier albums.
Reach For The Sky
Eight long years and the death of founding member Dennis Dannell from a brain aneurism passed before Social Distortion released the follow up to their previous album. But when 2004’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll came out, it was clear the band showed no signs of giving up. With Dannell’s former guitar tech and Cadillac Tramps/Youth Brigade guitar slinger Jonny Wickersham in the band, Social Distortion further added to their musical legacy with this great number and an album that can easily rank right behind AC/DC’s Back in Black as one of the great rock and roll eulogies to a fallen hero.
Far Behind
Songs that grab and hold you and earn multiple repeat plays on your music playback device of choice are harder and harder to find these days. This is Social D’s new classic. Where as some bands simply throw together a “new” song or two to round out a greatest hits compilation, this song deserves to be here. I put it right up there with all of the band’s biggest hits that make up the bulk of this album. The guitar playing is emotionally charged and the lyrics inspired. The hook will get stuck in your head in a good way and you may find yourself singing the “screw you” lyrics the next time your personal foil crosses your path.
Maybellene (iTunes Exclusive Bonus Track)
OK, so some people may bristle at having to shell out for a full album with iTunes exclusive tracks like this but frankly this one is worth it. This cow-punk reading of Chuck Berry’s classic will make you want to throw down your beer and slam dance. While rumors abound that Social Distortion will release a new album sometime next year, hearing this makes the Sick Boy in me want to have that followed up by an album of covers done the way only Social D can.
 
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