In the music world Mike Ness is best known as the lead singer, song writer and guitarist of the seminal American punk rock band Social Distortion. Their debut album Mommy’s Little Monster
, a straight forward punk classic, saw them become one of the leading punk rock bands on the Californian scene in the early 80's. Any fan of Social D knows that from then on something would be different for the band, but if you are not familiar with them, this is something new. Following their debut in late ‘82, Mike Ness would find himself in a little trouble due to his growing drug addictions and a brief stint in jail. After a couple years, the band, which essentially means Mike Ness, got their act together and recorded a sophomore album, Prison Bound
in 1988. The album was surely a change to the original style and sound of the band, adding a slight rockabilly and country influence of the likes of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and a roots rock sound reminiscent of the Rolling Stones. These influences would only be expressed greater on their next album (Social Distortion
, 1990) but reach its peak on 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell
. One more album would be released, four years later in 1996 titled White Light White Heat White Trash
(although less rockabilly orientated) before they would go on another break. But during this time off of no new material from Social Distortion, front man Mike Ness would put together a pair of albums in 1999 showing his true roots, as well as some of his deepest and emotional lyrics yet.
Cheating At Solitaire
was the first of the pair of solo albums to be released, hitting stores in the spring of 1999. A cover album entitled Under The Influences
would be released in the fall, Both on Time Bomb recordings. The former would be Ness’ only album with the majority of songs being his own with only a few covers on the record. Ness, who has gone through a lot of tough times (displayed on his bands earlier songs such as Prison Bound
, When Angles Sing
and It Coulda Been Me
), pours it all into this album making for some of his most personal work. His lyrics here often deal with his past troubles and memories, isolation, and relationships to even one of most pride possessions, his car, all put together in his great ability of writing poetry. And with these he gives his take on four classic songs, including the legendary Long Black Veil
, originally done by Lefty Frizzell in 1959 and was then made more popular by renditions by The Kingston Trio and Johnny Cash. The album has a few cameos too (in which the title implies) including contributions by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer. Vandals and popular studio drummer Josh Freese also recorded on the album.
From the opening track of The Devil In Miss Jones
, a sense of the album is brought out, that of driving acoustic guitar in sleek rockabilly rhythms complete with pounding drums and Ness’s deep, gravelly voice, although it is one of his more tamed vocal performances, as well as one of his best. The song is generally said to be one of his best solo compositions. If You Leave Before Me
follows along the same lines as the previously mentioned but with a much stronger country overtone. A song that perhaps exemplifies the country aspect of the album is Ballad of a Lonely Man
. Johnny Cash; one of Ness’ greatest inspirations was invited to perform on the track but was too ill at the time. The song is noted for having a great guitar solo done in country fashion. Rest of our Lives
meshes both a country and rock and roll overtone, is slightly faster than any songs already mentioned although can get confused with a few others here from a first listen. The song also features one of his best lyrical outings.
Although a good number of the songs here stray far away from punk rock, there is still a strong rock presence on many if not all songs, and even more so on a select few songs and sound as though they could have been placed on past Social Distortion albums. Crime Don’t Pay
is rather heavy for the album, highlighted by the sturdy presence of the powerful guitar and the saxophone makes a pleasant appearance on the song too. The saxophone makes its way on a couple of other tracks including Misery Loves Company
and No Man’s Friend
, most noticeable on the latter. Dope Fiend Blues
is a lengthy song at over five minutes, and another that could have been on a past album of Social D’s. In fact, the song originally recorded in 1994 as a demo for White Light White Heat White Trash
. Though it’s not as fast as the majority of the songs from that album, it would fit fine with Ness’ overly aggressive vocals. I’m In Love With My Car
, is one that certainly stands out, due to the fact that it rocks harder than almost any other here, and Ness gives one of his most distinct and darker vocal outings as well, although the song does tend to drag on a bit.
Mike Ness also pays his dues to the classics by taking on songs by some of his biggest inspirations songs such as Bob Dylan and Hank Williams. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
, a classic Bob Dylan number from his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
, stands as one the best songs on the album, let alone on of the best covers. Musically, it is more upbeat and faster as oppose to the rest here, but doesn’t stray too far away form the original. You Win Again
, the Williams one, is another slow paced country song with a very simple instrumentation, like much of the album, but emphasizes Ness’ vocals more. Send Her Back
, the album finale and last cover qualifies for the most upbeat and catchiest song on the album
Cheating At Solitaire
a strong album that can explain why Social Distortion has stuck together all those years with a strong leading presence of Mike Ness. It also demonstrates why, in my opinion, Ness is one of the best song writers of the genres generation. This album is a good grasp of what he is all about, strong and meaningful lyrics. It’s great for fans of rock or rockabilly, even folk or country and overlapped with a punk attitude. But if you are generally not a fan of country, this could still be something to check into. And it could also be good for Social Distortion fans curious as to what they might have sounded like if they were to go even further into country, roots rock and rockabilly. Cheating At Solitaire
is a great album that shows the many talents of Mike Ness.
The Devil In Miss Jones
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Crime Don’t Pay
Cheating At Solitaire