Review Summary: So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes, Part II
It’s been thirty-three years since the formation of NOFX, and Fat Mike and Co. still don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re like the creators of South Park in musical form: never giving a damn who they may offend, and always leaving an impression that they had a little too
much fun in the creation process. First Ditch Effort
is no different in this regard; there’s an abundance of humor and grit on their thirteenth full length that screams signature NOFX. Not that they ever really lost their identity, but they haven’t sounded this good in over a decade, dare I even say the 90s.
First Ditch Effort
has a sound that could comfortably rest between the ska-influenced So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes
and the more aggressive punch of Pump up the Valuum.
The brass sections have returned in a big way on several tracks here: ‘California Drought’ has peppy horn solos reminiscent of their 90’s classic ‘Eat The Meek’, and ‘Happy Father’s Day’ leads into urgent guitars with warmly subtle trumpet playing courtesy of El Hefe. Other songs are much more intense in nature, like the abrupt opening track ‘Six Years on Dope’, which doesn’t waste a second of its brief runtime as Fat Mike and Eric Melvin playfully trade off vocal duties. As a founding member of NOFX, Melvin’s always been a staple in their sound, with what fans like to call the “Mel Yell" - and he does not disappoint as he savagely screams his way through the rowdy opener. It's no secret Fat Mike’s vocals can get quite grating, so Melvin’s always provided a stark contrast to his sound with his much more abrasive style. He brings that extra edge to several other tracks on First Ditch Effort
as well, providing gruff backing vocals to enhance songs like ‘I Don’t Like Me Anymore’ and ‘Sid and Nancy.'
Although First Ditch Effort
is NOFX’s most consistent album in years, it’s not without a few eye-roll-inducing moments. ‘Oxy Moronic’, while catchy, feels rather lazy with the excessive use of drug puns in place of any real progression. Closer ‘Generation Z’ falls flat as well, with spoken word sections about the end of the world that feel a bit on the pretentious side. It just doesn’t seem to accomplish what it was setting out for, and feels more like a distraction than a satisfying conclusion to the album. These minor flaws aside, their thirteenth full length is their most focused effort in quite some time. In the past NOFX have taken topics of politics or religion too far, but First Ditch Effort
is incredibly balanced in his regard. The themes here feel much less excessive, like they’re just having a good time and improvising as they go. The shorter song lengths, bright horn sections, and sharp backing vocals bring to mind the quirky So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes
, which can’t be said with such confidence regarding their past few albums.
It’s not often Fat Mike writes a song with a deeply profound meaning. He’s built his career around drunken punk anthems and side-splitting antics, but every once in a while something manages to make its way through his stubborn skin. In recent years he tackled painful topics such as his divorce and even losing both his parents in the out-of-character ‘My Orphan Year.’ Now, he’s continuing the trend with a song written in dedication to Tony Sly. The No Use For a Name singer met an untimely death at the age of 41, and it’s refreshing to hear such a genuine dedication to his life: All the endless nights we had, 20 years of laughs / 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.
However, unlike ‘My Orphan Year’ which had a rather depressing tone, ‘I’m So Sorry Tony’ is undeniably upbeat, playing out more like a rapid-fire celebration of his life. No Use For a Name was signed to Fat Mike’s very own label for the majority of their career, so it’s not surprising to find out that Tony Sly and the NOFX leader were close. Still, when Fat Mike blurts out I’ve lost my parents and so many friends, it’s nothing like losing my friend Tony
, it comes as a completely unexpected punch to the gut. It’s a deeply meaningful song in an otherwise amusing album, and would have made a much more powerful closer than the ill-conceived ‘Generation Z.’
First Ditch Effort
is surprisingly solid for a NOFX album in 2016, feeling like something that could have been recorded in the late 90s during their prime. With the members pushing the age of 50, it’s quite impressive they still haven’t abandoned their punk/ska roots, and their sense of humor is as extreme as it’s always been. Not too many bands can take subjects like disease and addiction and turn them into buoyant and colorful two-minute-tracks, but NOFX have always had a knack for taking serious topics and molding them into playful wordplay. ‘Bye Bye Biopsy Girl’ fits this bill perfectly, with the use of horns and subtle female vocals lending a sense of optimism over Fat Mike’s quirky tale of dating a girl who had cancer. And standout opener ‘Six Years on Dope’ makes light of a ***ty situation with the vocal tag-team of Mike and Melvin morphing their past drug-use into a raucous punk anthem. Nearly every track on the record follows suit, with yet another NOFX album that proves the members don’t plan on growing up anytime soon. The band simply sound recharged on First Ditch Effort
, a sometimes hilarious and often consistent return to the sound that worked so well for them well over a decade ago. The Tony Sly tribute song is a nice, touching bonus, but ultimately the album is just a good time; nothing more, nothing less.