Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11: NOFX, "Punk In Drublic"

Artist: NOFX
Album: Punk In Drublic
Year: 1994
Label: Epitaph

One of the more frustrating aspects of hard rock and punk is when a band gets so serious, that they forget the fact that playing in a band, in its most basic nature, is extremely fun. These bands who lose sight of this basic principle often end up doing silly things like drastically changing their image or sound, or simply forgetting that, without their fans, they have no jobs. Thankfully, there are a large number of bands who prefer to keep their songs a bit lighter, yes no less musically superb, and it is often these bands that gain the most dedicated and fervent fan-bases. Among the later list of bands, stands a group for which one can make the case that they actually "started" what has now become a nauseatingly cliché genre of "power punk" or "pop punk." What began as a bridge between punk and third-wave SKA bands, making music that heavily aligned itself with the burgeoning skateboarding scene of the 1980's, has now become a haven for trendy posers and bands who are more concerned with getting in the tabloids and winning Grammy's then they are with making authentic, original punk rock. Yet, even with these horribly under-talented bands dominating the genre, many of the earliest bands still remain intact, and their shows continue to blow away audiences across the world. Within this group of long-standing, iconic bands is that group that in many ways started it all, a group that has never taken themselves too seriously, yet continue to churn out some of the finest music of the genre: NOFX. With nearly a dozen fantastic albums released over the past twenty years, NOFX made themselves a household name with their brilliant 1994 release, the truly spectacular Punk In Drublic.

While on Punk In Drublic, very little in the bands' sound has changed from their previous efforts, the difference is that the songwriting and the music has stepped up a level and is far more concentrated. Yet even with this improvement in songwriting, NOFX stays very true to their "anti-commercial" ethos, and the songs found on Punk In Drublic are just as non-radio friendly as previous efforts like the immortal "Please Play This Song On The Radio." This stronger push to NOT be mainstreamed is likely due to the sudden and somewhat surprising success of NOFX's label-mates Bad Religion and The Offspring. With Rancid following quickly thereafter, for awhile it seemed that Epitaph was THE label for "authentic" punk and hard rock bands. In many ways, NOFX's determination to avoid the mainstream is what defines them as a band, and it can be traced through their entire career, perhaps most notably when they almost completely eliminated their SKA sound when the style began to gain popularity. The one drawback to this almost constant change in their musical style is that while their previous records were quite good, none of them were as cohesive or gave as much of a feeling of "completeness" as one finds on Punk In Drublic. This is most likely due to the musicians within NOFX finding the perfect sound for the band, and it is also abundantly clear how much they are all enjoying playing each song.

Though NOFX had already gone through a number of lineup changes by the time 1994 rolled around, the grouping found on Punk In Drublic is by far the most potent and exciting grouping in the bands' history. As one of the three original members of the band, guitarist Eric Melvin is easily one of the most influential players of the genre. With an absolutely electrifying tone and attack in his playing, Melvin's guitar work is often the driving force behind the energy of the songs of NOFX. Though he is credited under a different name on nearly every NOFX record, Erik Sandin (this time credited as Herb Reath Stinks) set the bar for punk drumming. Through his somewhat public (within the punk community) battle with drugs to his quirky sense of humor to his unquestionably fantastic drumming talents, there are few personalities similar to that of Sandin. Often playing and unfathomably fast paces, it is Sandin's contributions that continue to whip audiences into blissful frenzies. Though there are scattered horns throughout the album, truly rounding out the musicians of NOFX is the one and only Fat Mike. One of the greatest punk bassists ever, Fat Mike (real name: Michael Burkett) shines just as bright as his bandmates, and the tension he often builds through his playing is nothing short of explosive in nature. Though the sound created by NOFX has been reworked (poorly) by countless bands since, the sound and energy created on Punk In Drublic is absolutely phenomenal, and it served as the catalyst for the movement that followed.

Along with handling bass duties, Fat Mike also attends to vocal duties as well as writing an overwhelming majority of the music and lyrics for NOFX. With a vocal delivery that immediately ignites concert crowds as easily as those listening to their records, Mike truly stands high above his peers, possessing one of the most perfect voices for his style of music. Finding the perfect balance between clear social criticism and tongue-in-cheek phrasings, Fat Mike also proves to be one of the most creative and original racists of his generation. Lending itself to the first of these ideas, "Don't Call Me White" is beyond socially aware, as Mike opens the song with the lines, "...the connotations wearing my nerves thin, could it be semantics generating the mess we're in? I understand that language breeds stereotype, but what's the explanation for the malice, for the spite?" The song can easily be seen as an accompanying piece to Minor Threat's classic, "Guilty Of Being White," yet the lyrics by Fat Mike are more elaborate, and the song itself has a far different tone. On the flip side of the style of NOFX, Punk In Drublic offers the absolutely classic Jew-punk anthem, "The Brews." Playing brilliantly off of the idea of the "Oi!" genre of punk, the song juxtaposes the fascist skinheads who are the base of that genre with an imaginary group of Jewish punkers behind an "Oy!" genre. The song represents the true genius behind the writing of Fat Mike, as well as the bands' true "punk for all" ethos. While many may try and write off the songs of NOFX as "too upbeat" for punk, if one reads into the truly deep meaning behind (most) of their songs, one will find one of the greatest lyricists of the genre, as well as some of the most fantastic songs.

Bringing a keen understanding of how to best convey their subtly deep lyrics, as well as all of the energy and emotion that one expects from the punk aesthetic, NOFX stand as one of the most influential bands on the music scene of the past two decades. To borrow a term from hip hop, one can also make the case that few bands have "kept it real" to the extent of NOFX, as they have constantly, purposefully, avoided anything close to "selling out" or compromising their sound. This dedication to their true nature is one of the many aspects that makes them one of the most highly respected bands to this day, and their songs continue to be covered by countless other artists. Often times covering their lyrical social observations with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, when one reads a bit deeper into the words of Fat Mike, one finds a man who is without a doubt one of the most skilled and socially conscious performers of the past few decades. Surrounded by a group of musicians with unparalleled talent and dedication to their songs, when NOFX moves as a single unit, there are few bands in history that can rival their energy and impact. Truth be told, every album within the NOFX catalog is well worth owning, as the band has yet to write a sub-par song, and the live performances that they've captured on record are an experience onto themselves. Yet if one had to pick a single album among this bevy of brilliant music, it would be NOFX's 1994 album, Punk In Drublic, which stands as their finest effort, and is similarly one of the most essential albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Don't Call Me White," "The Brews," and "Jeff Wears Birkenstocks."

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