Music

Social Distortion: Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Photo: Danny Clinch

Seven years was worth the wait for this remarkably consistent collection of bittersweet country-punk as only Social Distortion can do it.


Social Distortion

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Label web site: www.epitaph.com
Label: Epitaph
US Release Date: 2011-01-18
UK Release Date: 2011-01-17
Artist web site
Amazon
iTunes

When I saw Mike Ness perform in Chicago three years ago, he had stiff competition that night: on TV was the first episode of the new American Idol season. Of course, it's not like most of the audience felt there was a difficult choice to make (there was beery approval when the opening band's lead singer, a sort of real life Dewey Cox, said "those pussies in Rascal Flatts make the Monkees sound like the Rolling Stones"). Later that night, Ness burned through hits and deep cuts alike but previewed no new songs, which makes Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes that much sweeter.

For the past several years, fans have watched this American idle, taking a backing band on solo tours but never collecting Social Distortion for more than a one-off song (the greatest hits incentive "Far Behind"). Social Distortion's last album, Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, was released during the end of Dubya's first term. The one before that, at the end of Clinton's.

Whether this is a predication of a second Obama run is anyone's guess. But unlike their sonic relative Bad Religion, who weave harmony-laden punk with political discourse, Social Distortion play the vocally-inclined auto mechanic act close to the chest like a scrawled diary ("what the hell is a blog?" they'll ask). It may be 2010, but Ness and the boys have felt no need to change so much as their brand of shoe shine, let alone the distribution method. Forget pay-what-you want; Mike Ness will tell you what you're paying, and you'll cough it up. There's no deluxe edition with a DVD and a sticker of bassist Brent Harding's childhood pet; no cutting edge marketing plan; not a single note debuting on Facebook -- just a diamond-solid collection of 11 songs rolling into stores on a physical CD in the dead of winter.

But if you took this as an indication that Ness was grizzled beyond repair and out of fucks to give, think again, compadre. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes was worth a seven-year wait, and the songs speak loudly enough for Social Distortion's entire discography, brave new worlds be damned. Each track sounds meticulously crafted, down to the crashing cymbals and feedback closing out first single "Machine Gun Blues" -- which should have been around a decade ago to soundtrack one of those Tony Hawk video games. If you liked Social D in 1990, 1996 or 2004, it's almost scientifically impossible to dislike Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.

Worry not, fans of musical diversity; there's more than leathery punk with a patent number on display here, and the influences get equal billing, from Cash to Clash. For all the permanent sneer and drive-by swagger which the band is known, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes gets off to a rather modest start, first with opening instrumental "Road Zombie" -- a hair-greased groover with snakebite blues guitar but no lyrics to drive it home -- then "California (Hustle & Flow)", which should have Bob Seger feeling like a beaming papa after Kid Rock exhumed his huffy, flour-soul style. "Road Zombie" and "California" are infused with enough melody to stun an ox, but they pale in comparison to the rest, whether in the surging hope of "Diamond in the Rough" or "Bakersfield", which descends from "Ball & Chain" to continue a distinguished tradition of evoking empty barstools and tear-filled pint glasses (complete with an irony-free "Real Men of Genius" talking bridge).

On an album stuffed with them, Hard Times' far and away highlight is "Far Side of Nowhere", which stumbles out into the sun from the same bar that birthed the Nightcrawlers' "Little Black Egg" and sugared-jangle outfits like the Shoes and the Smithereens. Underscoring the song's uncle-friendly leanings, Ness recalls his morning routine ("I wake up, drink my coffee / put on my pants, and comb my hair"), but yearns to break free of that more intangible ball and chain by driving until both tank and wallet are dry. "We can run to the far side of nowhere / we can run 'til the days are gone," he courteously persuades his girl, even though he's ready to make good on that declaration with or without company.

It's certainly a big responsibility being the face of Social Distortion. The changing lineups and fixed songwriting duties have Ness carrying the weight of Social D the way Jeff Lynne did with ELO, responsible for creating a specific sound no matter who's in the room. There's only one new member since Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, but it won't show, as all members play their part like well-taught theater kids in a Stephen Sondheim musical. Ness strains to hit some of the album's higher notes, but nails every one. As with those notes, he's made it to the top, snagging the dream job of a thousand YouTube crooners as the idol we know we too can be.

"What's life without a little pain?" he asks, having been able to enjoy the former by making money off the latter. Is there anything more inherently "pop music" than that?

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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