A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the First Ditch Effort LP by NOFX.
While the last few years may not have looked like the busiest for NOFX on the surface (yes, as every fan knows, four years lapsed between Self-Entitled and First Ditch Effort – the longest gap between new full-length albums in the band’s 33-year history together to date), to say that the band’s members sat fallow would be completely untrue. In fact, it could be argued that the last few years have been the most taxing NOFX has experienced to date, on a personal level; the process by which the band composed their memoir, Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, required that each member address and/or confront everything they’d done both individually and as a group for over a quarter-century. In addition to that, “Fat Mike” Burkett revealed/came to terms with an unbelievable amount of issues in his personal life, including (but certainly not limited to) his divorce and his interest in cross dressing.
All of the events and activities listed above were obviously a very big deal from a “personally liberating” standpoint, but putting them all out there for public appraisal also must have had a very cleansing effect. Over the last couple of years (and albums), NOFX had fallen into the traps of “punky pranksterism” (see Cokie The Clown’s appearance at South By Southwest for the most obvious example), crowd-baiting and sensationalism (see Coaster and Self-Entitled) but, with the band’s memoir having put everything out in the open and it having been such a success, NOFX found themselves free to really begin opening up on a different level with their audience and start having fun again. All of that is perfectly clear on the band’s thirteenth studio album, First Ditch Effort; it feels like NOFX have started totally fresh but haven’t abandoned all the lessons they’ve learned over the last three decades.
As far from “stock” as First Ditch Effort may go, the album still has to start somewhere, and “close to home” makes the best sense – so that’s where “Six Years On Dope” begins. Longtime fans will smile when “Six Years On Dope” opens with Fat Mike and Eric Melvin casually talking back and forth about who should do “the yell” to open the song while Smelly and Hefe screech and pound out a speedy intro. The idea is dumb and “post-modern” (after thirty-three years, fans know what’s going on as well as the band does – they’re just playing around with the idea of what everyone knows is coming), but also perfect; “Six Years On Dope” is a more energetic start than the band has released in years (the closest, most comparable which leaps to mind is “It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite” from So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes) and really touches just the right nerves to drive anticipation up.
As the song continues, that level stays up too; the guitar tone is a great whirling mass of distortion thrust forward by Fat Mike’s bass and Smelly’s drums, and the vocal back-and-forth between Mike and Melvin continues throughout the song – although far less for laughs. Lines like “I was a human trash can/ Shortening my life span/ Live fast, die tan/ I think that was the plan/ Saving all my money for a one-way ticket to Afghanistan” show off an incredibly tight and focused form far beyond the “let’s goof on people” angles that NOFX had taken on their last couple of albums, and fans will know that right away; this is NOFX making a point and that turn is exciting.
The speed on “Six Years On Dope” breaks for a second or thirty to let listeners catch their breath at the beginning of “Happy Father’s Day” before launching back in with a vitriolic indictment of Fat Mike’s own parents and the multitude of wrongs that his father committed which ultimately produced his son. Again, as was the case with “Six Years On Dope,” there aren’t a great number of frills attached to “Happy Father’s Day” (a few extra backing vocals though – contributed by Fletcher Dragge of Pennywise) which really lets listeners stay focussed on the tone and spirit of the song instead of getting sidetracked. By the time the song ends , some listeners may be surprised to realize that while they’re two songs into the album, that’s only three minutes into its runtime; the power far overshadows the brevity, in this case.
As the A-side continues, the songs do get a little longer but don’t let listeners’ attention wander at all. Particular standouts “California Draught” (the best and most genuine “I’m getting sober” song this critic has ever heard from any punk band ever) and the “fun with language” workshop “Oxy Moronic” (which asks the biting question “Why are there more drugstores than liquor stores you can score on?” that every reclaimed addict asks at least once after straightening out) both again show a NOFX which is growing up/older but, unlike Green Day (who thought the secret to growing up could be found in releasing a succession of concept albums), do it bravely and as the tape rolls here – without trying to diffuse the obvious conflict which is happening both in and around the band.
That blunt and genuine nature is typified by “I Don’t Like Me Anymore,” too – there, over a melodic hardcore backdrop very much in keeping with the tenor and tone set elsewhere on First Ditch Effort, Fat Mike confesses “One morning I woke up, scratched my balls and eyes/ I looked into the mirror and got a big surprise/ I don’t know who this person is, but I’ve seen his face before/ A face I don’t want to have to face – I don’t think I like me anymore.” Of course, the language is direct and impossible to avoid and fairly smacks of mid-life crisis questioning, but there’s more to it than that too; this is the most direct confession Fat Mike has ever committed to song and is knee-weakening in its candor.
This sets a new precedent not just for NOFX, but for all of punk rock; the intimacy it demands is undeniable – and after the last word rings out, Melvin and Hefe’s guitars come blazing in at full volume and melt faces – even the unusual inclusion of some very prog-rock synths doesn’t take away from the emotional point of the song (lines like “People say they love me, then ask for something more” spill out as plain as day – this is all disillusionment plain, simple and universally accessible) and even listeners who might not “get it” right away won’t be able to miss getting hit by the song, in the end.
Whether by accident or design, “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” really changes the tone of the A-side in its late-playing, and the immediate follow-up to it, “I’m A Transvest-lite,” keeps true to the album’s “inconvenient truths for inconvenient times and uncomfortable, hot-button topics” angle. There, Burkett just lets the background of his now-public cross-dressing image blurt proudly and defiantly; he gives listeners a timeline (“I have to confess/ That I like to cross-dress/ I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen”), why he kept it under wraps (“It’s hard to tell bros/ That you like women’s clothes/ Even in the open-minded punk scene”) and why he’s gone public with it now (“Now I’m telling everyone/ Cause it’s fun/ And I don’t give a shit”) in perfectly blunt terms, and it’s really hard not to stand up and cheer in your living room as the song plays through. It’s impossible not to feel the sense of personal achievement that “Transvest-lite” represents and applaud both the band and its singer for their honesty and bravery at laying it all on the line and doing so without any artifice or confusing language.
… And after listeners hurriedly flip the record over to see what sacred cow NOFX will tip next on First Ditch Effort, they’ll find themselves laid out flat and spitting Chiclets by the album’s title track. Not that “Ditch Effort” is a grand departure, or even outside of the NOFX’ traditional oeuvre (it’s less melodic than the band’s standard brand of hardcore, but they’ve done it before) – but after “Transvest-lite” and “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” saw the band thematically opening up, the sudden shift to a loud-fast posture (jarring distortion, lines like “Fuck you and good night” and Melvin’s fantastic scream) all packed down into a minute and forty-nine seconds is just a different experience for anyone who went through the A-side of the album from front to back. “Ditch Effort” truly hits listeners hard in this context and then, while they’re still seeing stars, “Dead Beat Mom” inverts the ‘more hardcore than melodic’ idea which drove the title track and slaughters the with saccharine and searing guitars for only an extra twenty seconds beyond “Ditch Effort”’s runtime.
Some listeners might wonder if “Dead Beat Mom” is about Fat Mike’s first wife as the song plays, and then wonder the same thing of “Bye Bye Biopsy Girl” which follows it, but it proves not to matter in the slightest from a “listening experience” standpoint because both of them are just fine, offbeat punk songs. Really, they’re not at all what fans normally expect of NOFX, but they’re great fun which falls well within the scope of what fans always hope for from the band.
As First Ditch Effort begins spinning into its final decent, t Ain’t Lonely At The Bottom” puts a cute spin on the We’re all in this together” chestnut before the album spontaneously (and unexpectedly) downshifts into the most genuine and respectful ballad NOFX has ever released, “I’m So Sorry Tony.” There, on a neat and sparely adorned piano bed, Fat Mike remembers his friend and No Use For A Name singer/guitarist Tony Sly in a manner which plays well beyond cathartic; Sly was a true friend to Burkett and that fact plays clearly through both lyrics like “I’ve never known a better writer or a better guy/ His songs wouldn’t just touch you, they would punch you in the eye” as well as the singer’s delivery of them. Of course, after that beginning, the song revs up into a pop-punk/melodic hardcore place which can’t help but lighten the air about the song, but the soul of it never departs from this center – every word and remembrance is delivered as a tribute to a fallen friend. It’s the kind of reflection which isn’t seen often in popular song – and even less in punk rock.
After “I’m So Sorry Tony,” First Ditch Effort doesn’t feel as though it has a lot of places left to go easily, so NOFX takes the hard way and goes over the top with a mammoth and bombastic five-minute epic which wouldn’t have fit easily anywhere else either – so why not use it to just blow the doors off this album as a grand finale, right? That’s exactly what “Generation Z” intends to do; it is a rock operetta complete with cultural cues and socio-political examinations all unto itself. The song opens dramatically – with a minor key chord progression to inspire weariness and trepidation – but then it quickly builds in tempo and launches into a four-chord salvo which never slows down again for the rest of the song’s duration.
Doom is the word of the day here as Fat Mike questions if his daughter’s might be the last generation to inherit/inhabit the Earth (check out lines like “I think that our kids will probably see the end of humanity as we know it – cause this world’s about to blow it/ Will they see what they saw in ancient Rome/ The destruction of the home/ Will they see the end of civility/ Because when morality’s been blurred, procreation seems absurd/And human rights and freedom are just words” for a gleaming example of where the song is headed) and sneers at the prospect of promise on the horizon but, even so, the angle that the song takes is captivating – NOFX has been nihilistic on occasion before, but they’ve never done it with quite the methodical step they’re walking with here. Simply said, because they do not blur through the song and don’t just shoot for a dismissive one-liner anywhere, “Generation Z’ has the capacity to not just stand out from the running of First Ditch Effort but from NOFX’ entire catalogue. The band has never done anything like this before, but it plays so smoothly and confidently here that one could easily mistake “Generation Z” for just another ambitious statement.
As “Generation Z” continues forward, the song simply continues to amaze and inspire, as it goes. The darkness of the lyrics (and the are some of the darkest that the band has ever written) is tempered and contrasted by speed and an almost obnoxiously poppy melody, which cultivates an entire crop of ear-worms. El Hefe and Eric Melvin knock out one hooky guitar part after another and listeners, for their part, find themselves quietly committing each one to memory before the last turn finally returns to an epic sound where the tempo breaks and Sidra Hitching begins her recitation of a nihilistic poem about the decline of civilization with a bit of assistance from Darla Burkett and Fiona Sly before punctuating both the song and the album with the words, “It’s time – it needs to be said – I’m sorry to inform you that man and womankind has unfortunately been pronounced dead.”
Some critics might scoff and say the track sounds like a leftover from the most critically-maligned period in Trail Of Dead’s career (you know, when they were signed to Universal – but I liked that period), but NOFX fans who have been with the band for a while will recognize that the band’s political chops outside of music combined with the ongoing development of their music led to what we’re hearing here, and it is truly a great sound and moment for the band. After hearing it, listeners will know that First Ditch Effort couldn’t have ended as well any other way.
Standing back from it after the needle has listed from the vinyl (in this critic’s case, one of the 1990 copies pressed into gray vinyl), those who have gone front-to-back with First Ditch Effort will find themselves not drained, but delighted. Not that the band really began releasing substandard work in recent years but, since War On Errorism came out thirteen years ago, NOFX has skated very much with the pack, rather than ahead of it. Here though, there’s no question that the bandmembers are a little pissed off (some might say, ‘again’) and have something to say – and that translates into a great album which touches on some very important issues in a unique and personal way. It’s awesome – and really gratifying to hear NOFX come back into their own once again.
Ground Control Magazine – I Wanna Be Literated! 104 – Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories – [Column] www.groundcontrolmag.com/i-wanna-be-literated-104
First Ditch Effort is out now. Buy it here, directly from Fat Wreck Chords: www.fatwreck.com/record/detail/953.