We Are Joking, Just Joking, We’re Not Joking
Thirteen LPs in, it would be surprising if NOFX did anything radically different from what’s worked for them consistently for more than 30 years. Though their newest release, First Ditch Effort, isn’t going to shock and awe anyone, it is very much an album by a band that’s making a concerted effort not to rest on their laurels and continue write kick ass music.
Much of the album, musically and lyrically, is par for the course, consisting of sorta poppy minor-key skate punk with lyrics alternately containing off-color jokes and jaded political commentary. Due to having existed for so long as a band with a pretty steady lineup, these songs are executed expertly. “Sid and Nancy,” for example, which is a pretty typical NOFX tune about drugs and punk rock, includes female backing vocals, virtuosic bass fills by bandleader Fat Mike, and even a violin breakdown. These are ultimately small touches, but do a lot to bring fresh ideas to their sound, reminding listeners that there’s a reason NOFX is at the forefront of their punk rock niche.
Fat Mike is famously a curmudgeon, as evidenced no clearer than on closing track “Generation Z,” with lyrics that could well have been written by your jaded liberal dad. However, he gets uncharacteristically vulnerable on a couple of songs, most notably on mid-album standout “I’m a Transvestite-lite.” The lyrics are one hundred percent sincere—a rarity for NOFX—and seem to be an honest coming out about growing up wanting to wear women’s clothes while continuing to identify as a man. Publicly, Fat Mike has spoken about his interest in S&M and marriage to dominatrix Soma Snakeoil, but never about dressing like a woman. It’s not a large leap to assume the song takes from his own life experience, however, given that he has appeared publicly wearing women’s dresses many times, including at his own wedding. Whether or not the point of view within the song is his own, it’s a touching and heartfelt depiction of growing up with a harmless, taboo desire, of a sort seldom, if ever, discussed in the otherwise boundary-breaking punk community.
Penultimate track, “I’m So Sorry Tony,” is an ode to Tony Sly, who passed away in 2012 at age 41, and famously fronted seminal Fat Wreck Chords band No Use For a Name. Again, Fat Mike is singing his heart out. Joker though he may be, he’s also unafraid to admit painful truths, like when he laments “I’ve looked but I can’t find any photographs of us because it’s weird to take photos with your best friends / ‘cause you don’t think that you’ll never see them again.”
Listeners hoping for the more traditional version of NOFX or anyone who, for whatever reason, is averse to tearing up from time to time will find the band in top form on second single “Oxy Moronic.” The lyrics are totally goofy, taking every chance possible to make a pun out of the names of prescription drugs, but the overall message, which decries the business practices of Big Pharma, is heartfelt. Again, NOFX touches on a topic less often discussed by punks. Plus, the song rips. Occasionally, the band takes stabs at a modernized sound, like in the intro to “California Drought,” which features a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Joyce Manor record, but this and other flourishes, like piano breaks on a couple tracks, are occasional and undistracting.
Anyone with a vested interest in NOFX will enjoy First Ditch Effort, which was clearly written with care over the unprecedented 4 years since their last release. It’s just ambitious enough to both warrant a listen, and carry on the steady legacy of a band who pretty much led a significant sector of punk rock music not too long ago. So far into a long and storied career, which for Fat Mike has meant running a record label and contributing to some of its many projects, releasing anything groundbreaking is highly improbable. However, NOFX gets points for making what’s clearly a good faith effort and putting out something their fans will love.