"I Was Wrong"

"Don't Drag Me Down"


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New distortion from Social Distortion


White Light White Heat White Trash (Sony/Epic)

With a four-year break since their last album, a new drummer, a new producer, and a new back-to-their-roots direction, I figured I was in for something different from a band I'd always seen as overwhelmingly consistent. Social Distortion's White Light White Heat White Trash delivers on much of this promise.

White Light White Heat White Trash

The new album sounds distinct enough from their other work of this decade to mark a real evolution, but one that remembers its roots.

The core members of Social Distortion, lead singer/guitarist Mike Ness and guitarist Dennis Danell, have been playing together since 1979. The roots they're trying to get back to are those of the hardcore scene that flowed out of L.A., New York, and London in the late '70s, a sound most closely identified with the Ramones. What was so novel then has since been diluted among a slew of bands far more popular on the current record charts; Ness wants to show people that Social Distortion has been playing it for 15 years. But their sound is not that easily confused with other radio offerings, thanks to strong '50s influences (Ness is a big Elvis fan), as well as a country-western flavor at times.

If Ness wanted this record to demonstrate that unique quality that puts Social Distortion above and beyond current "alternative" music, he has succeeded. WLWHWT has a handful of songs that will do at least as much for the band's popularity as 1990's "Story of My Life."

Ness' standard, bitter vocals are as strong, and his lyrics as developed as ever. The aching invective "Don't Drag Me Down" has lyrics as socially loaded as those kids in Rage Against the Machine will ever attempt.

The chorus soars: "Ignorance like a gun in hand, reach out to the promised land / Your history books are full of lies, media blitz gonna dry your eyes / You're 18, you wanna be a man / Your grandaddy's in the Ku Klux Klan / Taking two steps forward and four steps back / Gonna go to the White House and paint it black!" That might not sound like the same kid who was complaining of "Bad Luck," but it is--now he's looking back on himself.

Reflection on the past is a major theme of WLWHWT, both lyrically and musically. In "I Was Wrong," Ness admits that he "hid behind anger," "felt so alone and insecure." The song can be seen as an apology for the errors of his youth, a theme as sincere and original as any on radio of today. Ness, who has battled heroin addiction and served time in jail, has advanced to the point that he can take responsibility for his mistakes, and make this Social Distortion's most personal record to date.

He admits, "I wish I knew then what I know now" ("Crown of Thorns"). The Mike Ness of the past, described on "Pleasure Seeker" among other songs, believed he could "Play the games, don't feel no shame (that's what Eve said to Adam before she came)." All this reflection also conveniently lets everyone, including those younger than he in the business, know that he's been around, playing and recording before they got to high school.

White Light White Heat White Trash is the strongest Social Distortion I've ever heard. Consistently powerful guitar dominates, of course, but quieter, mournful tones surface as well. The typical lack of a lead guitar part, so dominant in this band's past material, gives way here to more contrast.

The overall effect of this experimentation is positive, keeping the band from wandering into monotony as they sometimes have in the past, and letting Ness do more with his voice. Some of these songs could even fit nicely into the Les Misérables soundtrack--maybe with a bit less guitar.

--Dan McGarry

Back in @A&E:
Review: the new album from jazz guitarist John Scofield
Ahead in @A&E:
Review: the new album from Six Finger Satellite

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