Velvet Fist In An Iron Glove

Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer make appearances.

Beneath hardcore's long black veils of clenched defiance and testosteronic

menace, good old-fashioned romanticism lurks. For proof of this concept,

consider the "LOVE" and "PAIN" tattoos that decorate the fingers of Social

Distortion's Mike Ness. Here's a man whose heartache is so overwhelming,

apparently, that simply wearing it on his sleeve does not do it justice.

Instead, he's put it right there on his hands -- permanently -- where it

literally touches everything he touches. That such a man would eventually

turn to more emotionally expressive genres than hardcore seems inevitable;

the big surprise of Cheating At Solitaire, Ness' new solo album

wherein he forsakes Social Distortion's hardcore roar for a rootsier sound

steeped in roadhouse country and blues, is that it took the 37-year-old

singer 20 years to release such an album.

Indeed, Ness takes to the rhythms and themes of this music so naturally that

it sounds as if he's been doing it for years. Cheating at Solitaire

is generic in the best sense of the word: The music is familiar and

first-rate, combining the tight precision of punk with the more elaborate

arrangements of country, classic rock and blues. Pedal steel guitars twang

and whine like drunken violins; tenor saxes smolder; there's even the

occasional mandolin! And following in the footsteps of rugged

sindividualists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, Ness covers all the

standard themes of brooding, misunderstood singermen searching endlessly for truth and deliverance: loneliness, solitude, self-torment, regret, loss,

anger and redemption.

On a couple songs, like "Long Black Veil," the limitations of Ness' staccato

rasp work against him, but for the most part he's quite effective. Consider,

for example, his rollicking version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice"

(RealAudio excerpt). Here, as he often does, Ness sounds like Tom Waits -- but he's a

stripped-down, no-frills version of that singer, and where Waits'

exaggerated emotionalism would have sabotaged the song's mood of

buttoned-up, no-regrets affirmation, Ness' simpler style fits it perfectly.

The same less-is-more principle also informs Ness' songwriting. As a

lyricist, he tends more toward abstract generalizations than particularity

-- his songs typically begin with lines like "Some say it's the strong who

survive" or "You can lie to yourself, you can lie to the world." But

while very few individual lines would qualify as striking or memorable, his

plain-spokenness is convincingly heartfelt, especially on the love songs

"Rest of Our Lives" and "If You Leave Before Me."

For all his simplicity and restraint, however, Ness can also be compellingly

bombastic, as on "I'm In Love with My Car," a song whose pedal-to-metal take

on auto-eroticism would be somewhat ludicrous if it weren't for its

blistering guitar work and the over-the-top conviction that Ness attacks his

lyrics with. Many of the songs on Cheating at Solitaire have an

oversized, theatrical quality to them. "Crime Don't Pay"

(RealAudio excerpt) and "No Man's Friend," with their moody, noirish

horns and vintage blues guitars (Brian Setzer guests on the former song),

sound like the signature songs of the five-o'clock-shadowed, prison-garbed

villains in some highly stylized, highly entertaining '40s musical. And

"Misery Loves Company"

(RealAudio excerpt), a relentless rocker in which Ness trades verses with rock's poet laureate of lonesome

anguish, Bruce Springsteen, will no doubt be responsible for its share of

speeding tickets -- it's the perfect soundtrack for late-night,

everything-sucks highway therapy.

In the end, the virtues of these songs are numerous: They nicely illustrate

the connections between hardcore and earlier genres of American music; they

fulfill the traditional "at this point, making a more accessible record was

the punkest thing I could do" destiny of all longtime punks in a way that

seems completely heartfelt; and most of all, they give Ness freer reign to

express the romanticism that has always been an undercurrent in his work.

Cheating at Solitaire is hopefully just the first of his detours in

this new direction.