NOFX – First Ditch Effort (Fat Wreck Chords, 2016)

This is the first collaborative review on Apathy & Exhaustion. Clara and Tony tackle the long-awaited NOFX album, First Ditch Effort. Read on to find out what we had to say…

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Clara: OK, so I am going to stick this review under my My Trans-Agenda banner. To find out why you will have to read all the way through. But, a new NOFX album – and no doubt another polarising album at that. No doubt this review, where I sing its praises, will be considered as blind love for NOFX. So, for those interested, this is not my favourite NOFX album – there are others I like more, but I do like it, and I will buy it with money I don’t have on Monday. I’ll be called out for suggesting that listeners pay attention to the songs themselves – I mean why should a fan actually care what the band want to SAY when comedy punk has an easier, quicker pay off. Whether or not songs should be easier to grasp is an argument, and maybe I am wrong on this. But punk should be ‘listened’ to. Maybe I’ll even be shouted down for just trying to be all PC, and nice and stuff. I don’t really give a stuff, though. I like this album and I will explain why. If you have a different opinion, fine. If you think I am wrong – well no, I do like this album, that’s my opinion. How can I be wrong about that? Dumb-ass spoon-fed poser punk generation!!

Tony: I’d been quite keen to hear this record, as the last couple of albums (Self Entitled and Frisbee) had been pretty decent, and I had high hopes for this. I’ve made no secret of my belief that prior to those two, the last decent full length they’d dropped was So Long, & Thanks For All the Shoes way back in 1997 (see also The Decline, but that’s like a concept EP, not an album). I have to say that overall, it was pretty good, even though I thought (and still think) the first single, Six Years on Dope is a bit of a stinker.

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Clara: NOFX albums, of late (16 years or so…) tend to have been dismissed as a bit rubbish. The band even acknowledge this: I have seen videos of various live shows where songs are introduced with “This is off the last album, which is underrated”. I actually get pretty annoyed about all the hate. To me, NOFX have developed as a band, going from comedy Californian speed-punk band to a proper, grown up punk band with a real message. Yes, albums from the second half of their career take more effort to understand – maybe don’t grab you quite as quickly and come across as less catchy than their earlier stuff. But the messages, the meanings behind the songs – these have all improved, or become more clear. Like I say, I think they have become a true punk band deserving of the title. I hope I am not in a minority here. I am sure you know which camp you fall into. That said, I don’t always know what they are going on about so maybe I have invalidated my entire rant…

Tony: I will state for the record that I’ve never viewed NOFX as a comedy punk band, though. Overall, in my opinion, they are pretty serious, and have talked about some pretty dark stuff over the years, but I’ll grant you they do have a fair number of jokey songs, or songs where serious issues are addressed in (to varying degrees) an amusing, but often offensive manner.

Clara: So, what about this new album. Well, as I said above, it took me a few listens to get into, but I am glad I did. Musically, I would say that there are a few nice trills and tweeks (an Epoxies-esque sound on It Ain’t Lonely at the Bottom for instance) that I have not noticed on previous albums, but, overall, it is standard NOFX musical fair. What makes the album particularly good to me is the lyrics. This is another album that has a message. Actually, the album is bloody painful to listen to at times. Clearly this is missed – the Consequence of Sound stream has plenty of comments about a lack of inspiration, etc. (It also has comments from a lot of morons that cannot work out how to listen to a YouTube playlist!) Again, I find myself getting angry when I read comments like ‘I don’t listen to punk like this’ – really, really? So punk is all catchy jingles and comedy lyrics? I know NOFX gained a fan base by doing this (and doing it well), but seriously. Learn what punk is.

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Tony: I think the Epoxies is one of those bands where we have quite different opinions. Propagandhi had it right on A Speculative Fiction:
“You stupid fucking laser-punks were just the start!”
Having said that, It Ain’t Lonely at the Bottom didn’t upset me too much. Clara has it right, this is a serious record, with some serious messages. It’s like a continuation of their more recent theme of honest seeming autobiographical work on the previous two records.

Clara: Wow. This really is turning out to be just a rant, huh? So… How is the ACTUAL album?
Well, first up / first single is Six Years on Dope. I don’t think I have heard anything good said about this song but I love it. Nice, shouty, in yer face punk with lyrics about various band member sobering up. Some may say ‘why the shouty singing style’ – well, I think this is secret to how good it is. By using this style, Melvin can take over half the vocals – thus singing about his experiences himself. That’s pretty sweet. Using a style to allow him to do this. Even better – I like this style. Yay me.

Tony: As I was saying earlier, I don’t like this song. It just felt a bit weak and laboured to me. Turns out, that this song seems to actually be about Erik “Smelly” Sandin, after having read the Hepatitis Bathtub… book. Which I’d heartily recommend, by the way.
In fact the first three songs are probably the worst on the album. Admittedly, on repeated listens, I didn’t hate Happy Father’s Day or Sid and Nancy though. They’ve grown on me.

Clara: Six Years on Dope isn’t the only song on this album about sobering up. California Drought and I Don’t Like Me Anymore also cover this ground. In some ways, maybe this album is pretty preachy? Maybe. But it is also very honest. Fat Mike spent some time in rehab prior to writing this album and putting out the book (in collaboration with the other guys) NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub And Other Stories. I think it is fair to say that this album reflects self-realisation and is very open and autobiographical. Indeed, it is not hidden in any way – it is stated clearly in I Don’t Like Me Anymore.

Tony: I’m reading a signed copy of The Hepatitis Bathtub And Other Stories right now. My friends from Germany, Knolle and Izzy got it for my birthday while they were in the US. I’m about a third of the way through, and it’s given a good amount of insight into the lives of the members of the band. I actually found Fat Mike to be a bit less of an obnoxious arsehole from reading this. But yeah, for the whole bunch of them it seems like there’s been some real problems with booze and opiates over the years. Some really sad anecdotes as well as funny ones.

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Clara: Putting message and lyrics aside, let’s maybe talk song style for a little while. California Drought, Sid and Nancy, Dead Beat Mom and Bye Bye Biopsy Girl are all songs that are very obviously by NOFX. As I say above, it isn’t their best album and the songs are fine. However, I think that the other songs, that are slightly different from their usual sound, are actually the better songs on the album. The ones that I want to listen to more, at least. So that’s odd.

Tony: I suppose the thing with NOFX is that you can pretty clearly tell that’s who you are listening to. But you can also tell if it’s a record they’ve put a lot of effort into writing or if it’s something they’ve just lazily dialed in. The songs are strong overall. I’m totally picking up on that kind of harder, nastier 80s hardcore influence, though. It kind of adds a bit of beef to the sound, which enhances rather than detracts from it.

Clara: Of course, the most accessible “classic NOFX” style song on here is Oxy Moronic. Whilst most of the album is about sobering up, this is a call out of the pharma generation and the over subscription / advertising of the legal pharmaceutical industry. Amazing play on words – I am amazed at how many drug names they manage to fit into the lyrics. Gimicky, yes. But actually pretty amazing when you think about it! Regaining Unconsciousness indeed – the band still have a message to spread.

Tony: I get what they are saying, mainly from my interview with Mark Lind. He talked about how fucked up the pharmaceutical industry is over there. With the advertising that is targeted toward indicating that you need to take all these pills to be well. Almost as if they are telling the public that you can’t possibly be a normal functional human being without it. It sounds well messed up. And the disclaimers. Damn.

Clara: Six Years on Dope, Happy Father’s Day, I Don’t Like Me Anymore, and Ditch Effort, are songs that have teeth. I gotta say I love the angsty, loud songs. Maybe I just feel that same angst myself, that need to scream – especially knowing I should grow up, too. That said, Happy Father’s Day does not pull any punches – substituting angst for straight up venom. Given the content of the other songs, I imagine it is well deserved but I don’t know the background here. These songs have a good kick that makes me want to stomp around a pit. Not that I will. I’m too old and get damaged too easily. But… the intention is there. I wonder whether these songs would be better liked if they came from a post-hardcore band like the Bronx or something, rather than NOFX. Are NOFX a victim of pigeonholing because of their previous success? Maybe. I think these songs kick ass.

Tony: I think if anything, they probably pigeonhole themselves. I think they’d be the first to admit that. In a similar way to how every Bad Religion record sounds pretty much like a Bad Religion record. Did I ever mention how much I love Bad Religion? I know that’s a really uncool thing to say in the current context, but whatever. BR fucking rule (apart from the slow albums, which kinda suck). But, keeping it on topic, the ‘NOFX sound’ would not exist if they hadn’t (by their own admission) tried so hard to sound like BR and RKL. As for the angst thing, it’s a totally natural part of human nature. If you can’t let it out, you are either oppressing yourself, or you are too fucking stupid to realise you have it. There’s got to be some kind of correlation between angst and high levels of intelligence. The world around us almost purpose built in a way that enhance the amount of psychological pressure the average human is under.

Clara: For me, It Ain’t Lonely at the Bottom is the musical stand out on this album, if not the best, as I stated earlier. There is something very reminiscent of The Epoxies over the top of this song thanks to the synth meets punk thing. Quite bizarre for a NOFX song really, but it shows that they are not worried trying new things despite being a ‘few’ years in. Very refreshing. And good to boot. I actually learnt about The Epoxies when they supported NOFX a bunch of years back. Nice to see that – kind of a shout out to them, maybe? Generation Z is definitely a classic NOFX tune, but as per the second half of their career. Doom and gloom lyrics about how screwed the planet is, over a nice, fat punky riff – this is the kind of politicking that I love from NOFX. And, as usual, you are left feeling somewhat sad – something of a trademark NOFX move in my mind, to put a song like this at the end of one of their albums. It’s something that I notice when they do it. Something I like.

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Clara: I’m So Sorry Tony is a lovely tribute to Tony Sly. I won’t claim that I was a huge No Use For a Name fan. I’m not going to be a douche and jump on that bandwagon. But I saw them live a few of times in the early zeros, bought some merch and had a few albums. It was clear when he passed how loved he was in the global scene, and I was truly touched, despite not having had that connection myself. This is a lovely tribute to a dear friend.

Tony: I agree, I’m So Sorry Tony is a really touching moment. For me, also one of the standout moments on the record. No Use were a really great band for me, up to the point where the albums started to feel a bit too “pop” for my tastes. Which I suppose highlights Tony Sly’s skill as a writer and composer. For those that are interested, there was another fantastic tribute track to Tony Sly on the latest Lagwagon album, Hang, which is called One More Song. Heartbreaking stuff. It truly is. Here’s an acoustic rendition.

Clara: I have left I’m a Transvest-lite until last for a reason. I have prattled on about how honest this album is. Maybe this is the most open song on the entire album, and one I want to champion. In an interview with Alt Press, Fat Mike says: “I used to live so much of my life in private but I’ve slowly started going to parties and out in public without being embarrassed of my true identity and that confidence just transferred over to my entire life,” he continues. “When you’re dressed in rubber and heels and corset and you’re waiting in line for an Omelette in Jamaica, well, after that there’s nowhere else to go.”
Well, yep. This song about cross dressing is not something I would expect anyone, especially not a punk rocker, to fess up to. I am also pretty confident in saying that it is not just for comedic effect – so I hope I am right in this. Damn, I half expect a major edit coming on with my tail between my legs… but given the friendship shown to Laura Jane Grace, I think I’m OK. The lyrics ring far too true. And I bloody love it for that!
“Now I’m telling everyone cause it’s fun and I don’t give a shit” – yes, YES!!! Thank you Fat Mike for this! I am a trans-woman, and these days I think that that is not such a bold statement. I am not alone, and acceptance, understanding, even visibility is high. But cross dressing is still one of those things that is seen as weird: deviant. Gender is becoming more fluid by the day. I would say that the boundaries of gender are being broken down and pretty soon society will have to admit that it isn’t as clear cut as we like to think. Some cross-dressing is for kink purposes, some is a non-understandable affinity to do so. Both are fine. Why should people be forced to look one way, wear certain clothes, act a particular way. This song will be passed by, but it is actually a pretty important step for the trans community. Laura Jane Grace coming out as trans was huge but this could be important for many other trans folk out there who do not define as simply male or female. I hope so, at least…

Plus, he looks fab:

Tony: Probably not in the best position to comment on this, but I will always applaud anybody that is going to stand up and go “yep, this is the real me” and not have to lead a secret life anymore. Doesn’t matter who you are. Look at your own experience, Clara. It’s amazing to me. On a more current note, also take a look at pro skate boarder Brian Anderson recently going public on being gay. It’s totally amazing to me that people are able to come out. It must take a lot. The real shame is, I suppose that society makes people have to feel ashamed of who they are in the first place. I suppose the nearest I can come is my own recent openness on the subject of my mental health.

Clara: In conclusion, so yes, this album is challenging. Is it right that you should have to put effort into understanding an album’s message? I dunno. All I know is that I did and, as a result, I found myself really enjoying this album. Plus I like that there are a lot of more shouty songs on this album. I like it, but I will let you make up your own mind. Just don’t judge it based on what you want it to be: an orange tastes nothing like an orange if it is an apple.

Tony: Punk should be challenging the listener. That was one of the key aspects from the outset, way back in the day. If you don’t feel challenged, then the band is failing in it’s duty as far as I’m concerned. Either that or the fault I suppose could lie with the listener. Not really sure what I’m trying to say there, but yes, it is challenging in places. The right places, I would think. If you like the “good” NOFX albums, like wot I do, then you’ll get a lot from this record, for definite. I know I love a good honest listen to a good honest record.

As you’ll see up above, somewhere, there’s a YouTube playlist of this album floating around up there somewhere. So go have a listen yourselves, and form your own opinions. Drop a comment on here to let us know what you think of it…

I'm a mountain climbing, LGBT advocating, miniature painting, Star Wars nerding, D&D reading, board game playing, comic devouring, constantly napping trans-female scientist from Oxford who listens to music that most folk will regard as pretentious. And I just don't care. Ha.

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