As the walls that separate punk and pop continue to crumble, bands that can teeter on the edge, like No Use for a Name, are suddenly, well…making names for themselves. NUFAN’s home state of California is at the hub of this crossover trend, as bands like Offspring, Rancid, Bad Religion and Green Day crawl out of the woodwork and onto commercial radio and MTV like termites from a brush fire. In No Use’s case, the move has been gradual, spanning four albums, some eight years and about a half-dozen lead guitarists. What’s remained constant is the unabashed energy infused by drummer Rory Koff and bassist Steve Papoutsis, as well as attendance at the Bad Religion school of socially aware lyrics and melodic harmonies. No Use is occasionally plagued by overblown vocals-the result of Tony Sly making the switch from hardcore-style rants to real singing — but that hasn’t significantly slowed the band’s marked musical progression.
An early formation featured Chris Dodge and Sly on vocals, with Sly also on lead guitar. The quartet’s self-titled debut EP rings with basic mid-’80s hardcore à la Black Flag) or, in more melodic moments, early Descendents (parts of “Shotgun,” for instance). Though the four songs are not unique, No Use at least spits ’em out on target. (The in-your-face “NoItAll” also appears on the first album.)
One year and four songs later, No Use throw a few curves in with the traditional speedballs on Let Em Out. The EP starts with a scream on “It Won’t Happen Again” — which also pops up on the debut album — as its tempo changes stir a hornet’s nest of tension. The solid hardcore of “Pacific Bell” and “Born to Hate” incorporate chants.
Incognito comes off the blocks at a scorching clip and rarely lets up. Dramatic rhythm shifts on “Puppet Show” and elsewhere prove No Use’s crisp musicianship. But the songs are too often predictable in structure-breakneck speeds mixed with slow, exaggerated mosh parts. Sly does refrain from forcing his voice on most of Incognito, keeping it where it’s most potent, raspy and aggressive. He’s especially effective using the spoken vocal approach on “Record Thieves” (originally on Let Em Out) and “Weirdo,” where his offhand delivery recalls Black Flag’s “TV Party.” As a portent of things to come, No Use provides “Truth Hits Everybody” with a Police-like chorus that actually works.
The momentum established with Incognito dissipates on the followup, the transitional Don’t Miss the Train. It’s not the pace so much as the focus that’s lost: metal-edged lead guitar and poppier harmonies seem out of place alongside the hardcore pace and lyrical bent. The album does have a few tracks where it all comes together, though: “Punk Points” and “Get Out of This Town” recall the first album’s ripping sound. Sly keeps it under control for those songs, unlike the strained vocals of “Tollbridge” and “Thorn in My Ride.” As for the band’s commercial impulse, it’s hit and miss. The music of “Death Doesn’t Care,” an allusion to the pointlessness of killing for your country, complements the tension of the lyrics. But other tracks on Don’t Miss the Train sound as if the band is waiting at the wrong station.
Improved songwriting elevates The Daily Grind, although the tempos flow so well together that it’s difficult to differentiate among the tracks. Dynamic variety would have helped, but the precision drumming and sharp fingerings of the latest lead guitarist are a boon. There’s also a big difference in Sly’s vocals, which generally fit the music better. Lyrically, the band casts a cynical eye on society. As “Countdown” observes, “Another wall is built between color and race/Another wrong decision about peace is made/Another chemical is dumped into the sea…Another day, another pain, another misery.” (The cassette adds the contents of Don’t Miss the Train.)
Two years and yet another guitarist later, ¡Leche Con Carne! uses hooks, dynamics and diversity to effectively straddle the punk-pop line. Along with the commercial-inroading “Soulmate,” tracks like “Leave It Behind” sport catchy riffs. While the lyrics again dwell on social ills, from wife-beating (“Justified Black Eye”) to the fiasco in Waco, Texas (“51 Days”), Sly finally proves himself as a singer without faltering. The unlisted bonus track-a covers medley of ’70s classics that includes snips of Berlin’s “Metro,” the Knack’s “My Sharona” and Toni Basil’s “Mickey” — offers an indication as to the specific sources of the band’s burgeoning pop sensibility.