Franz Nicolay Major General

[Fistolo; 2009]

Styles: cabaret, gypsy, bar rock
Others: The Hold Steady, World/Inferno Friendship Society

Franz Nicolay is a brilliant character, straight out of fiction: The Hold Steady’s live show, while not introducing or innovating anything at all, is intriguing simply for the cavalcade of characters executing what is simultaneously the simplest yet possibly the most profound thing any five musicians can do: deliver a straightforward rock concert. And Nicolay is such a major part of this experience. There is a genuine air of foreignness about him onstage. His output outside of The Hold Steady-- including the NYC-based musician collective Anti-Social music, klezmer ensemble Guignol, and the Balkan-influenced tent revival of a band known as World/Inferno Friendship Society -- sounds very much of somewhere else. But if you thought Nicolay’s outsider persona would extend to his new solo output Major General, you would be mistaken.

Which isn’t to say that this is a Hold Steady album. Forward-thinking moments pop-up throughout. “Dead Sailors,” Major General’s standout, is Nicolay’s persona in aural form, with its eerie and vaguely unsettling piano line made all the more not-of-this-country by intermittent clickings of the castanets and a soft accordion progression at the refrain. Likewise, “Note on a Subway Wall” finds Mr. Nicolay playing the role of Annie Hall, singing of a silly and sad moment of romance over expert piano voices. “Subway Wall” showcases Nicolay’s voice in the most positive terms: as a vocalist, the man is dynamically and emotionally aware like few vocalists are anymore, and his abilities behind any instrument with keys is peerless. “Did you ever leave a note for me/ In graffiti, on a subway wall?” Nicolay quietly inquires over an ornate arrangement of keystrokes worthy of Vince Guaraldi-level compliments.

Yet, in spite of the few heartbreaking moments of interest, the rest of the album is either a botched attempt at growth or what seems like a retread of a Hold Steady song concept. Nicolay’s voice, while at times the man’s best asset, sometimes betrays the album. His voice as backup in The Hold Steady has always been interesting, giving Craig Finn’s lyrics a mild element of melodrama. Front and center, though, this same voice occasionally comes off as too much of that: a histrionic, almost silly crooning more reminiscent of Neil Diamond than anyone else. “Hey Dad!” for example, even with its banjo lick and piano pluckings conjuring images of saloons and the musty scent of alcohol (a recurring sonic theme throughout Major General), has this lone man right in the middle of it all, pulling at his pipes in the most cringe-inducing way possible.

Lyrically, Major General is either hit or miss. “Confessions of an Ineffective Cassanova,” even with its bar band monotony, has some of the most memorable lines in the album. “She broke my nose, and I bled on her nightgown,” Nicolay tells of a sexual encounter, further along evoking images of white Ukrainian squeezebox players, a cartoonist with a “thing for knives,” and other such shady characters. But just as easily as Nicolay can jot up a solidly witty pop song, he can make you wince with embarrassment over a terribly witless pop song. “X-Games” is one of those songs: "I fall in love the way most race cars/ Jump from cliffs, build rockets, shoot for the stars." The song is about (I guess) how he views love as some dangerous thing that he does, hence the name of the song. Juxtaposed over easy listening acoustic guitar and brushes on the snare, it sounds like Nicolay is trying to be Randy Newman and failing.

Then there’s those damned spots, those songs that seem more like Nicolay serving as the temporary front man for The Hold Steady. As a fan of The Hold Steady, this shouldn’t bother some, but the lyrical and sonic similarities sometimes seem patronizing. Opener “Jeff Penalty,” named after the replacement Dead Kennedys front man of the same name, is straight out of the scribbled-upon napkins of Craig Finn. The song comments on the role of an aged seminal band and their current influence on the youth scene. “I’m sorry, Jeff what’s-his-name if we didn’t take you serious/ But the punks all still sang along when you got to the chorus,” Nicolay growls -- and for a moment, we believe it, what with its sweeping and anthemic Springsteenian melody grounded by an air-tight backing band. Still, as clever as it may be to write a song about an older and less dangerous version of what was once a subversive band, I can imagine this very song being sung by Finn.

Other similarities are less overt: the record is incredibly glossy, very much in the vein of Boys and Girls in America. To some extent, this isn’t huge, but with repeated listens, the high production could make the greater moments of idiosyncrasies come off as somehow less "authentic." What’s so strange about this album’s sonic similarities to The Hold Steady is the fact that, when seen in photos or live or in interviews, Nicolay is the one who seems like the odd man out. If any other member of The Hold Steady made a solo album that sounded like this, I would get it. Perhaps I was just expecting more from Nicolay, especially after hearing his output with World/Inferno Friendship Society. Outside of the few moments of innovation, though, very little will strike one as all that inspired.

1. Jeff Penalty (w/ Demander)
2. Hey Dad!
3. World/Inferno Vs. The End Of The Evening
4. Dead Sailors)
5. Do We Not Live In Dreams?
6. Confessions Of An Ineffective Casanova
7. Note On A Subway Wall
8. Quiet Where I Lie
9. Nightratsong
10. X-Games
11. This World Is An Open Door
12. Cease-Fire, or, Mrs. Norman Maine
13. I'm Done Singing

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