Here’s a news flash: An established artist moves toward country instead of away from it. Obviously, some folks weren’t cc’d with the memo about it being professional suicide for rock guys to have a twang fixation. Cheating At Solitaire — the first solo effort from Mike Ness, the main man behind Orange County punk heroes Social Distortion — is a cowpunk ‘n’ hot-rod blues orgy.
Among the guest contributors are Brian Setzer, Bruce Springsteen and X’s Billy Zoom; cover tunes include Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and Hank Williams’ “You Win Again”; and then there are Ness’ own like-minded approximations, delivered with the same snarl, Les Paul buzz and angsty muscle that made Social D songs such as “Bad Luck” and “Ball And Chain” standards on modern rock radio. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a country-leaning punk who once made “Ring Of Fire” and “Making Believe” safe for stage-diving anarchy boys everywhere.
Not that it works entirely. The knock against Social Distortion being a bit of a one-trick pony definitely applies here. To Ness’ credit, Cheating At Solitaire does stretch out better than Social D ever has, from the Old 97′s-style rollick of the Dylan cover to the greasy, garage-rocking “I’m In Love With My Car” and the surprisingly delicate, mandolin-tinged “If You Leave Before Me”. But his limitations are revealed in his permanently clenched vocal delivery and survival-of-a-junkie themes, which we’ve already heard a million times from Ness. His attraction to lyrical clichés is another strike against him; key phrases such as “misery love company,” “crime don’t pay” and “the devil in Miss Jones” proliferate.
Still, Cheating At Solitaire succeeds for precisely the same reason Social D does: Ness is one of a kind. It’s that simple. If you’re twang-friendly, and if you buy into his monolithic punk presence and his I’m-sensitive-yet-I’ll-kick-your-ass-with-one-hand-still-on-the-steering-wheel sincerity, then you’ll buy into this album.