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
(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.