NOFX breaks new ground, stays close to home

“Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing”
Fat Wreck Chords, 2006

There is a thin line between a fine wine and vinegar, and after 20 years and 15 albums, the rapidly aging punk band NOFX is precariously perched at that crossroad.

Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to come up with innovative material after all that time, and in the band’s latest album, “Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing,” it sometimes shows.

The words don’t rhyme, the vocals are off-key and the music is obnoxious.

But then, NOFX fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Despite an evident struggle with creativity, the album isn’t without its novelties. “The Man I Killed,” a Bad Religion-esque ballad, breaks some new ground for the band, though it lacks the furious, heart-attack inducing drumming that fans have come to expect from the 40-something punks.

And that song isn’t alone.

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“Cool and Unusual Punishment,” a toned-down number about lead singer and bassist Fat Mike’s escapades in Tokyo’s notorious Roppongi district, sounds eerily similar to ska-punk band Catch-22’s “Christina.” Absent that coincidence, it works for the band, adding a refreshing breath of melody to an otherwise mostly heavy-hitting CD.

The album’s lone acoustic track, “Doornails,” is sentimental without being touching. The song, which dedicates Fat Mike’s drug use to his friends, would be more intriguing if the listener were let in on the joke: “This Ritalin is for Lumpy, and this speedball’s for Friday; this nitrous hit is for Lynn and best friend Dobbs.”

The tune is catchy because it sports the same tired F-G-C chord progression that’s all too typical in punk rock.

Though fans generally listen when guitarist El Hefe steps up to the microphone, in “Cantado en Espanol,” his usually rhythmic instrumentals are disappointingly absent, as is his trumpet. This is trivial, considering that the song’s humor – generally Hefe’s signature contribution – is lost to listeners who don’t understand Spanish.

NOFX’s characteristic humor, while not missing, is noticeably darker in this album, keeping with its trend toward the politically incorrect and drug-induced that was set in its last several albums. This makes for a good listen for those who agree with their views _” rather left of center _” but will likely preclude dissenters from picking up a copy.

The band continues toying with its favorite themes _” Bush-bashing, anti-Christianity and pro-drug use _” almost to the extent that one slightly yearns for a taste of some of the mindless, adolescent humor that characterized its earlier albums, circa “Ribbed.”

While Fat Mike’s lyrics are still are on point most of the time, he sometimes comes across less poetically than he’s capable of. His lyrics don’t rhyme, which, in keeping with tradition, is mostly intentional. But it’s more than that. Some of his phrasing, such as in “You Will Lose Faith,” lacks the eloquence that it had in many of his earlier songs: “You’ve become an anecdote-the worst case scenario, the proverbial ‘that guy.'”

Although only moderately successful at most of its down-tempo numbers, NOFX tries to assert that it still has what it takes to do what it does best: Deliver a poignant sensory assault through blaring guitars, psychotically fast drumming and, despite that, a tightly constructed melody.

And they nail it, at least half the time.

“USA-holes” _” probably the most aggressive, though not fresh, track on the album _” hits hard from open to finish with what NOFX fans have come to expect. Songs like this lend some hope contrary to speculation that the band will outstay its welcome on the scene, though the band doesn’t rule out the possibility in its last intelligible line on the CD: “I suppose that’s how we’ll go out, played out and way after our time.”

Despite being determined to stick it out, NOFX isn’t resigned to maintain the status quo. This album, “now with 40 percent more Mel Yell,” certainly demonstrates that at least that innovation is one best enjoyed in moderation.

But then, the “Mel Yell,” like a fine wine, is an acquired taste. People who aren’t familiar with it are probably not going to like this latest album.

And that’s why punks will.