What initially sounds like a scattered album ends up feeling more like a revue of NOFX's 30-year career. For better and for worse.
First Ditch Effort is NOFX’s first record in four years, technically the longest they’ve ever gone between albums. Except 2014-15 saw the entire band working on the songs and soundtrack to frontman Fat Mike’s punk rock musical Home Street Home, so it’s not like the band took an actual extended break. First Ditch Effort follows logically from the band’s previous two records Self-Entitled and Coaster. Both of those albums found the band loosening up its blazing punk approach just a bit to make room for some stylistic curveballs while Mike occasionally let a more serious, personal lyric sneak in amongst his bratty snark.
Where previous NOFX genre experiments were usually played for laughs (1991’s reggae goof “Kill All the White Man”, 2000’s polka-tinged “Theme From a NOFX Album”, and Coaster’s gleeful “I Am an Alcoholic” with its extended lounge-jazz intro all come to mind), First Ditch Effort doesn’t really go all in like that with any of its songs. Instead, it finds the band more willing to buttress its basic sound, using keyboards on almost half of its tracks along with more vocal harmonies than we’ve heard from them in a long time. The album’s 13 tracks at first play like a scattershot version of a typical NOFX record, with the band bouncing around a lot stylistically within their basic punk sound. But after a few listens this scattered approach coheres into something like a revue of the band’s 30-plus years of history.
It’s hard to tell if this was intentional on the part of the band, because Fat Mike has almost always been willing to play the clown. And yet, First Ditch Effort finds him being more serious and confessional than ever. But he still makes time for all his usual half-joking targets on many of the record’s songs. Which only adds to the initial scattered effect of the album. “Six Years on Dope” opens the album like this. Ostensibly Fat Mike is describing how awful his life was on heroin, but the song begins with Mike instructing guitarist Eric Melvin to sing most of the lyrics because “You’re gonna sing this better than me,” while Melvin attempts to beg off. But the raging hardcore tone of the song actually does fit Melvin’s strained yell vocals perfectly, which almost justifies the banter at the beginning of the song. A few tracks later, the band gives us “California Drought”, which sounds like a classic mid-‘90s NOFX song. It’s fast, catchy, and features excellent harmonies from the band’s other guitarist, El Hefe. It even features a mid-song trumpet solo courtesy of Hefe, something the band essentially stopped doing around the turn of the century. But the lyrics are seemingly total honesty from Mike about his struggles to get sober. It’s been seven years since the previously mentioned Coaster track “I Am an Alcoholic”, and clearly things have changed in Fat Mike’s life.
One thing that has definitely changed for the band was the 2012 death of longtime friend Tony Sly, frontman and songwriter for No Use for a Name. Even though it happened over four years ago, clearly the pain is still raw, and First Ditch Effort’s penultimate track is simply titled “I’m so Sorry, Tony.” The song opens with a tender piano intro and a really roughly sung first verse from Mike. It sounds like this was a take where he was struggling to get the words out and the decision to use it gives the whole song a feeling of genuine sorrow. Even when the guitars kick in at the 45-second mark and the song gets much cleaner, that emotion lingers. When discussing his daughter playing with Sly’s, the line “And I think she’s sad / Cuz tomorrow she hopes her dad / Will be coming home / Cuz he told her that three years ago on the phone” is heartbreaking. The song features really great guitar leads from Hefe, as well as a great wordless vocal solo from Dance Hall Crashers mainstay Karina Denike. And Lagwagon’s Joey Cape, possibly the whiniest, nasaliest of all the whiny, nasal ‘90s punk singers, turns in excellent non-whiny harmonies all the way through the song.
Elsewhere on First Ditch Effort, Mike’s emotions have a tougher time translating into quality songs. “Happy Father’s Day” opens with a simple guitar intro that slides into one of the brightest-sounding, poppiest riffs the band has ever done. This is all a fakeout, though, as at the 27-second mark the song shifts into a much more typical hardcore mode so that Mike can spend a few lines spitting out lyrics about how he still hates his father nearly a decade after his death. This territory was covered much better back on “My Orphan Year”, where he contrasted his father’s death with his mother’s. But now we know he still holds an intense grudge, I guess. “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” is all about Mike realizing he’s not particularly well-liked, even by his longtime friends, and that he doesn’t like himself. A worthwhile examination, but it’s married to a too-typical punk song without much of a hook, which makes the whole track a boring downer. This is followed by “I’m a Tranvest-Lite” which is all about how Mike enjoys cross-dressing but is too lazy (or just disinterested) to do things like shave or wear makeup and try to actually pass as female. Musically the song is a bit more lively than “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” but it’s still missing a strong melody to boost the lyrics.
Then there are the goofs. The songs where NOFX shows us they’re still the same fun punk guys they always were. The most successful of these tracks is lead single “Oxy Moronic”, a mid-tempo rocker that finds Burkett ranting about opiods and other prescription drugs that are ruining lives around the United States. He blankets this rant in a series of goofy portmanteaus involving drug names. “I’ll throw a Prozaccusation with a sub-Ketamine-ing / They’ll say my fears are Quaaludicrous” goes one couplet. These lines range from genuinely clever to eye-rollingly strained, but the sheer number of them is impressive and the fact that he was able to come up with so many helps support his rant. “Dead Beat Mom” features a lovely four-part vocal harmony introduction and is super-catchy, and has a strong lyrical point of view from the father character that gives it a genuine emotional core. “It Ain’t Lonely At the Bottom” has a couple of really catchy keyboard parts and a great melody. It also features the band reveling in scumminess, a longtime trope.
“Sid and Nancy” returns to a familiar band target, the Reagans. Here Mike invents an alternate history where Nancy Reagan was sexually involved with Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and had him killed (“Make it look like an OD”) to prevent the story from coming out. This is ridiculous but entertaining. “Bye Bye Biopsy Girl” is a return to an earlier style of silly, politically incorrect songwriting. Mike tells a series of breakup stories where he 1) dumps a woman with cancer, 2) dumps a bilingual woman and then gets her deported, and 3) dumps a bisexual woman for trying to get him to have a threesome with a male prostitute. It’s a song with a good hook but it feels like Mike, who usually reserves the venom for himself and politics these days, is trying too hard to be mean.
The album ends with “Generation Z”, which features an interminable voiceover from Sidra Hitching and some singing and shouting guest vocals from Mike and Tony Sly’s tween daughters. This five-minute song is clearly meant as a spiritual successor to “The Decline, the band’s epic 18-minute song from 1999. “The Decline” was righteously angry about a whole host of things, and turned that anger into a stone cold punk classic. “Generation Z” borrows a lot of stylistic ideas from “The Decline”, but replaces the anger with outright nihilism. Mike frets that his daughters are going to live to see the end of humanity and that the world is already essentially destroyed. That feeling of hopelessness makes for depressing listening, especially because the song follows the beats of “The Decline” but writ small. A quiet intro bursts into uptempo punk, which pushes into tension-filled guitars about halfway through the song. This is where the voiceover comes in, and eventually the daughters join, first singing underneath the voiceover before finally shouting “Generation Z!!” over and over. This is almost exactly how “The Decline” fades out, except that song’s badass dirty trombone is replaced by a mournful viola and Melvin’s powerful shouting is replaced by the much less powerful shouting of tween girls. Clearly this is something the band, and Mike in particular, feel passionate about, but “I’m so Sorry Tony” would’ve been a much better finish to the album. Still, there’s enough interesting and flat out good songwriting going on here to make First Ditch Effort worth a recommendation.