NOFX return with a strong record after a few years spending too much of their energy bashing Bush. Coaster sounds like the band is having fun again, which is probably better for all involved.
The liner notes of Coaster mention that NOFX have been around for 25 years, and that's an impressive accomplishment. But the last couple of releases the band have put out have been lackluster. 2003 brought the heavy-handed, Bush-bashing War On Errorism. 2006 gave us the lazy, phoned-in Wolves in Wolves' Clothing, which announced itself as such by calling the first track "60%", and singing about how they got by by half-assing it. The song seemed a lot less funny after listening to the rest of the record. Oh, and then there was 2007's They've Actually Gotten Worse Live!, which strove to avoid duplicating songs from their 1995 live album but ended up largely featuring songs that even the band's biggest fans didn't really want to hear. Plus they closed that album out with one of the biggest anti-fan moves of all time by letting us hear the first two minutes of "The Decline", the band's 18-minute epic, and then fading it out.
But 2008's hilarious TV series "NOFX Backstage Passport", which followed the band on a world tour full of exotic locations and disastrous gigs, went a long way towards rehabilitating their image. And Coaster may just restore their reputation the rest of the way. Things seem much better for NOFX frontman Fat Mike (Mike Burkett) these days. With Bush out of office, his lyrics seem more playful and fun than they've been in years. Which isn't to say that Mike doesn't still get angry sometimes. His disdain for religion remains in full effect, so we get "Blasphemy (The Victimless Crime)", a song all about trying to be as offensive to religious people as possible. It's more grating than funny, except when Mike admits, "But you'll never hear a crack about Mohammed / 'Cause I don't wanna get shot in the chest." Along the same lines is "Best God in Show", where he talks about his dwindling patience for dealing with religious people in any situation. It's interesting to see how his point of view has changed since 1994's "The Happy Guy", which was about how religious people were silly, but if it made them happy, then that was all right.
Elsewhere, though, the good-humored Fat Mike reasserts himself. "First Call" is an amusing ode to folks who stay up all night getting hammered and then stagger a few blocks away to make the opening of the local early-morning bar. "Creeping Out Sara" recounts a meeting at a festival in Germany between Mike and Sara of Tegan and Sara. Mike proceeds to embarrass himself: "I told her I was a big fan of her band / She asked me if I had a favorite song / I admitted that I never actually heard them, but I like k.d. lang". As the song goes on, he gets himself into ever-more-embarrassing territory, asking her rude questions about her sexual history and more. "One Million Coasters" describes a warehouse filled with outdated equipment, including eight-track tapes, inkjet printers, Walkmen, analog TVs, Betamaxes, and of course, ten million CDs, because the song is really about the band's own Fat Wreck Chords warehouse. "Eddie, Bruce, and Paul" is a retelling of the history of Iron Maiden, disguised as a song about gay men. It features an extended outro with some impressive guitar pyrotechnics from Eric Melvin, which is evidence of a punk band that have been together for 25 years.
No matter how rudimentary the band started out when the members were in high school, these days they can really, really play. This is evident right from the opening notes of Coaster, when a voice says "The leads are weak!" and then kicks off "We Called it America" with a blazing 25-second guitar solo. And the band long ago got over having to be all punk, all the time, so "Creeping Out Sara" is appropriately poppy and midtempo. "I Am an Alcoholic" starts opens with an El Hefe (Aaron Abeyta) trumpet solo and 45 seconds of pop-jazz, while the closing "One Million Coasters" ends with another great guitar solo before the band lays way, way back to make way for a minute-long bass clarinet solo. The vocals are also pretty finely honed here. Fat Mike sings in the same slightly nasal tone he has for years, but the group knows exactly when to complement him with the backing harmonies of El Hefe or contrast him with the high-pitched shouting of Eric Melvin. Former Dance Hall Crashers singer Karina Denike also shows up on several songs to add some high harmonies. This is particularly effective in the opening section of "I Am an Alcoholic".
Despite these touches, musically NOFX are pretty much doing the same thing they always have. Songs like "The Quitter" and "Suits and Ladders" are the same high-speed punk the band have been doing since they started. Lyrically, though, there is one notable high point. "My Orphan Year" is a surprisingly sincere song about how both of Fat Mike's parents died in 2006. It's both a loving tribute to his mother and a scathing rebuke to his father, who left the family when Mike was young. It's a sad, honest moment for the band, and it's nice to hear them do a song that isn't jokey or angry for a change.