The sentiment in Social Distortion's new album title might suggest a
lighthearted mocking of '60s rock, something akin to the Humpers'
Positively Sick On 4th Street, the New Bomb Turks' Information
Highway Revisited, or the Butthole Surfers' Electriclarryland.
White Light White Heat White Trash, however, differs from these
titles in two fundamental ways: first, there is nothing lighthearted about
this album; and more importantly, its attitude possesses more in common
with its namesake record than the others mentioned. The Velvet
Underground's White Light/White Heat delved further into the seedy
underside of the '60s than even its shocking predecessor, offering
screeching, insanely distorted tales of speed, sex, heroin, and (granted,
morbidly funny) death. On Social Distortion's White Trash, Mike
Ness and his band dive head first into the deep waters of personal pain;
at their best, they emerge scarred, but stronger.
What immediately reels the listener in on White Light White Heat White
Trash is Michael Beinhorn's superb production. Right off the bat it's
clear that this album possesses a beefy rock and roll sound that manages
to elude entirely too many bands. The drums (recorded before current skins
man Chuck Biscuit joined the band) are set in the back of the mix, but
they're not distant. They're located exactly where the snare doesn't
sound tinny, and the cymbals can fill in any cracks with their racket.
Likewise, John Maurer's bass stands away from the primary action to
provide sturdy support rather than its own melodies. That leaves the
perfect space up front to be filled by the twin guitars of Ness and Dennis
Danell, along with Ness' vocals. Call it simple, standard, classic,
whatever you want, but not enough people practice it. Beinhorn deftly
leaves no space unfilled. Now one might argue that that's not always an
admirable result, especially when a producer is working with a no-frills
outfit like Social D. The tendency of many overbearing soundmen in such
cases is to add superfluous instruments to fill out the mix. Not
Beinhorn. He wisely creates a satisfying, meaty sound working solely with
His production is not only important to conjure up the best of what Social
Distortion has to offer; Beinhorn's treatment is paramount for the
material that Mike Ness has written. VU's White Light/White Heat
delivered a full sound out of sheer desperation, as band tensions and the
demands of some songs forced everyone to fight for his or her own ground
while the tape was rolling. One does not detect that exact quality on
White Trash, but one can without a doubt sense the urgency and
tired desperation both Ness' lyrics and in the band's performance.
Beinhorn's robust production creates a solid foundation in the music that
is vital, for it unconsciously tells the listener that the singer of these
tales has emerged from the pain, and is stronger as a result.
This subtle message is essential to counterbalance the personal and
societal suffering expressed by Ness. The word "pain" turns up in no less
than five of the album's eleven tracks, three times in the first song
alone: "It ain't nothing girl, till you've felt the pain"; "Dear lover, I
can't take the pain no more"; "Dear lover, give me one last painful kiss."
A slim majority of White Trash's songs revolves around the socially
generated suffering of individuals. Of these, the most compelling is
"Don't Drag Me Down." In part the song seems to empathize with the
downtrodden who receive no answers to their despairing questions, and thus
turn to hate groups out of ignorance and frustration. Ness' tale is
necessary, especially during this an election year when, as Michael Moore
eloquently put it, the left is too busy swilling Starbucks to go down to
the local line dance and see what's up with regular folks in need.
Most of White Light White Heat White Trash's other numbers explore
relationship casualties or self-inflicted pain. To be sure, visiting
suffering in all of White Trash's various arenas is a concept
embedded with potential. Ness too often shortchanges his own ideas,
however, by expressing them in platitudes.
Witness these phrases, which turn up throughout the album: "There ain't
nothing in the world for free"; "Living in a town without a name"; "It's
no bed of roses"; "You're working for the man." The same problem plagued
Brian Setzer's first solo outing, which was an excellent effort marred by
the cliched "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
The comparison with Setzer's The Knife Feels Like Justice is
appropriate, because despite the rock and roll crunch that Social
Distortion purveys on White Light White Heat White Trash, the
album's lyrics frequently endow it with a roots rock feel. That might not
seem so surprising considering Social D.'s past flirtations with
rockabilly and country. It's an unexpected trait, though, in light of
Mike Ness's recent remarks that his inspiration for this album was mid-70s
punk from the Ramones and Johnny Thunders as well as early punk out of
L.A. White Trash may be a signal that heartland politics are
taking hold in rock again during the welfare slashing '90s just as they
did in the middle of the Reaganite '80s. Just assemble Social
Distortion's album side by side with Wayne Kramer's Dangerous
Madness and Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad--you may not have a
movement, but there is definitely a common thread to all three that has
ties to the last decade.
Amid Ness' many stories of despair, "When the Angels Sing" serves as an
anchoring point of faith. The number, which was inspired by the death of
his grandmother three years ago, sounds hopeful, as if it's being sung by
a man reborn:
Stand up strong, feel the pain When the angels sing Love and death don't
mean a thing Till the angels sing.
Appearing roughly half-way through the album, "When the Angels Sing"
firstly provides a source of fortitude that allows the listener to
approach the desperation to come throughout the rest of the record. But
the song should also inspire the listener to return to White Light
White Heat White Trash knowing that pain and despair that coats the
album is conquerable.
It's worth noting as an addendum that White Light White Heat White
Trash contains a cover of "Under My Thumb" as an unlisted twelfth
track. Only this song suffers at the hands of Social Distortion and
Beinhorn, and it does so in a disturbing way. The original Stones
recording of "Under My Thumb" is still intriguing today thanks primarily
to its seductive use of the vibraphone and Mick Jagger's cunning vocals.
While the singer calls his girlfriend a Siamese cat, it is actually he who
is slinky and sly, for he will chauvinistically dominate the girl
and, he boasts, she will like it because he is such an effective
seducer. Social Distortion's recording works in quite the opposite
manner. Their straightforward approach, enhanced by Beinhorn's meaty
production- -which is perfect for the rest of the album's tales of hope
and despair--is terribly wrong for the song because the boisterousness
destroys the cunning necessary for the seduction. The sonic firestorm
does not at all serve to lure the girl in, but rather in essence beats her
into submission. It's a disturbingly ugly--but unfortunately
appropriate--metaphor for Social D.'s take on this song of domination.