With Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, longtime punkers Social Distortion grow up and mellow out 

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From as far back as their sophomore effort Prison Bound, Social Distortion made it known that they weren't out to reinvent the skateboard wheel, nor did they care to mold the shape of punk to come. Subsisting almost entirely on tough-guy clichés, Mike Ness & Co. carved out a rough-and-tumble persona from very early on, drawing from influences like Hank Williams, Dead Boys and Rolling Stones and filling their tunes with tragic tales of sweetheart hookers, pool-hall hustlers, back-alley junkies, hard-luck ex-cons, broken noses, busted hearts and the brooding, misunderstood kid from the wrong side of the tracks who just can't catch a break.

While the '80s were a proving ground riddled with heroin addiction and scrutiny incurred by laying down acoustic guitar tracks on a punk record, for Social Distortion, the '90s were paved with gold records, Brylcreem, leather jackets, fresh tattoos and heavy rotation in the coveted "buzz bin." Now, the smoking, drinking, dancing skeleton that's adorned their merch from the outset is one of mall outlet Hot Topic's best-selling staples.

Social D's criminally underrated 2004 release Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll was largely overlooked, making this year's Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes feel like their first studio record since 1996's White Light White Heat White Trash. The title is a dichotomy that makes plenty sense: It summarizes the blues and country roots the band has always worn on the sleeve of its leather jacket, but all cleaned up in time for church. Critically, reception has run from lukewarm to lavish, just depending on who's listening.

Those expecting another collection of rebel anthems from one of Orange County's longest-running punk institutions seem mostly disappointed. These tempos will make your mosh pit feel more like a hoedown, and this kind of clean, crisp clarity will only make your parents want to hear more.

On the other hand, reviews have been far more favorable from fans of contemporary roots rockers like Lucero, Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady. In that context, Social D is the perfect blend of punk heritage and vintage American worship for a new generation — a generation that likes their rock 'n' roll more on the sanitized side. We can safely call a dad a dad here, and file this one under "Dad Rock." Case in point: Mike Ness' eldest son is nearly old enough to buy a beer, so shelving the rants about all the shit he got walking down Ventura Boulevard with a blue mohawk in 1980 — as detailed in the banter from 1998's Live at the Roxy — is for the best.

That said, Ness' accumulated wisdom and advancing maturity mean he's prone to spend more time telling stories about the characters he's spent years cultivating as opposed to thumbing his nose some more at conformity and cranking up the sonic snarl for the sake of proving he's still willing to rebel against whatever you've got. The knack for melody the band showed as far back as 1990's Social Distortion has blossomed into first-rate songcraft, and their hard-bitten, knuckle sandwich guitar riffs — traditionally slathered in bluesy, countrified afterthoughts — here have been blended, distilled and aged into a solid union of muscle and finesse, with a high-dollar sheen no doubt the result of many months of meticulous mixing.

Exile-era Stones references are inescapable. "California (Hustle and Flow)" sports some hearty gospel mamas on backup vocals, steering it dangerously close to "Tumblin' Dice," and "Diamond in the Rough" is only a note or two off from Exile's "Torn and Frayed." "Machine Gun Blues" is a Prohibition-era narrative that packs in every gangster platitude ever dreamt up, and "Bakersfield" channels The Flying Burrito Brothers with a heavy stomp and the signature guitar crunch the band hasn't entirely left behind. As its title suggests, "Alone and Forsaken" picks up the pace and darkens the mood a bit, reminding us they're still indeed a punk act — just sweetened a bit with lush harmonies and a shimmering Hammond B3 organ.

Yes, Hard Times is pretty soft in the context of SD's body of work. But if you've loved the blues as long as these guys, you can't blame them for finally wanting to do it justice.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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