So I won't even bother trying to introduce Mike Ness. If you don't know who he is by now, you need to stop reading this, run to the nearest record store and pick up any and all Social Distortion albums you can find.
Breaking away from Social Distortion in 1999, Mike recorded this solo album to explore different styles of music that mean something to him. In Social D, he stuck mostly to punk rock, with the exception of 1992's fantastic
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, which had a very heavy country/honky tonk influence.
Cheating at Solitaire picks up from this point and moves further away from the punk rock and closer to the country. Along the way, the album picks up some more influences, including a bit of blues and some greasy rockabilly.
The songs jump back and forth from portraying Mike as a heartbroken cowboy drinking outside the county jail to a greased up badass working on his hotrod. Some songs are filled with twangy guitars, some with saxophones belting out dark blues with Mike telling stories of past mistakes. The lyrics are full of references to lost loves and youthful rebellion. Through Mike's words, we see a man who has come a long way, who has matured and regrets some of his decisions that brought him to where he is today. Standout tracks would be "Cheating at Solitaire" and "Ballad of a Lonely Man", both of which lean more towards the country influence. "Cheating at Solitaire" is a slow, somber ballad, which peaks during the powerful chorus. "Ballad of a Lonely Man" feels a bit too upbeat to be considered a ballad, but also contains a great chorus, is filled with a country twang, and features a great guitar solo.
Along with a horde of his own songs, Mike provides several cover versions of songs that he loves. His cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, Its Alright" is downright fantastic, paying homage to everyone's favorite folk singer, all the while adding an energy that the original lacked. This is one of the best tracks on the album. On the other hand, Mike's version of Hank William's "You Win Again", while good, lacks a certain element that made the original so much more heartbreaking. Unfortunately these are the only two covers that I have any familiarity with the originals, so I can't really comment on the others.
There is one black mark on this album, and that is track 12 "I'm in Love with My Car". Now, I have no understanding of cars, so maybe I am a bit biased, but this song just feels overly cheesy. It fits the image of Mike Ness, the badass greaser, but whereas most songs are reflections, this is an ode to a piece of machinery. Musically, this is probably the hardest track on the album, but it just feels lacking.
So to recap: Mike Ness = talented punk rocker. Social Distortion = great punk band that introduced country elements on their 1992 album. Cheating At Solitaire = the logical sidestep for Mike Ness to further explore these country elements and introduce blues and rockabilly into the mix. "I'm in Love with My Car" = I don't even know where this one came from. This album is gold, and is highly recommended.