One of the guys from Oasis once quipped that the problem with Keane was that the two biggest assholes in any band are the keyboardist and the singer (meant to imply, I suppose, that 2/3 of Keane are assholes). Franz Nicolay doesn’t strike me as much of an asshole (and certainly not as much of an asshole as the Gallagher brothers, who are pioneers of assholery), so his first solo album since joining The Hold Steady (I’ve mentioned them once or twice, haven’t I?) shouldn’t be hamstrung by the fact that he plays keyboards and sings.
As long as you don’t expect Major General to sound like a Craig Finn-less Hold Steady album, you should find it a pleasant and revealing listen. Album opener “Jeff Penalty”, about the poor bastard who dared to fill Jello Biafra’s shoes in The Dead Kennedys, might mislead you into thinking that Nicolay is trying to play Craig Finn on his own, sans Tad Kubler, with the speaking/singing on the chorus “I’m sorry Jeff What’s-his-name/ if we didn’t take you serious/ but the punks all still sang along/ when we got to the chorus.” The fact is, though, that Nicolay has a much broader vocal range than my hero Mr. Finn, and he doesn’t wait long to expand the sonic palette on Major General. The album departs sharply from its opener; Nicolay’s shtick seems to be mixing Nick Drake, Modest Mouse and Tom Waits-esque cabaret in a blender with a dash of early Springsteen for flavor.
Nicolay was doing music on his own and with other bands prior to joining The Hold Steady and on Major General, he re-establishes himself as a songwriter in his own right and shows exactly why The Hold Steady took him on full-time during Separation Sunday (he has guest credits on Almost Killed Me but was still doing his own thing as well at the time). His musical capabilities expanded The Hold Steady’s sound tremendously and pushed them into the broader musicality of Boys and Girls in America and last year’s tremendous Stay Positive. Nicoaly’s influences on Major General share some overlap with those of The Hold Steady, but Nicolay applies them to different effect, allowing himself to wander quite far from The Hold Steady’s classic-rock-done-better-than-everyone-else formula. “You’re always surrounded by lovers/ you’re never as broke as you seem,” Nicolay sings on “World Inferno vs. The End of the Evening,” dramatically singing a line that is probably what that douchebag Brandon Flowers was going for on Sam’s Town. “World Inferno” is followed by “Dead Sailors,” a song that Nicolay could’ve co-penned with Tom Waits (“I guess no one cares about sailors in this bar”), and the exemplary acoustic ditty “Do We Not Live in Dreams?”
Some Hold Steady fans might find Major General a little too croony for their liking, but none of those fans work at Bollocks!. The consenus among our editorial board (which is just me, sitting in my Imaginary Office) is that Major General is an often-beautiful if sometimes melodramatic glimpse into the soul of music’s best Super Mario lookalike. And some of its best moments are a little croony, like “Cease-Fire, or Mrs. Norman Maine,” a song carried by a nifty banjo lick and the line “we still believe in forgiveness/ but we believe in vengeance too.” But so fucking be it.
If I’ve painted a portrait of Major General and/or Franz Nicolay as somehow indie-precious or sickeningly sensitive (a la Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst or any of their ilk), allow me to direct your attention to the best opening line on Major General: “She yelled, ‘Fuck you, Franz/ from the back of an ambulance/ but I’ll still fuck you/ the next time we dance'” on “Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova.” Nicolay is still able to get down to real shit, mere moments after musing about living in dreams (in a song that has a lovely clarinet solo). Later in the same song, he sings, “I could say I still love her/ but what do I know about love/ except love songs?,” and yeah, it’s the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hold Steady song, but its the exception on an album that rules. It helps one see how Nicolay can sit down with Craig Finn and turn out something as awesome as “One for the Cutters.”
Major General may not gain much notoriety outside of circles of curious Hold Steady fans, and Nicolay might well be aware of that fact. Perhaps that knowledge is what freed him up to wander so wonderfully from genre to genre, bouncing between raging punk nerd (on “Jeff Penalty”) to wide-eyed strummer (on “X-Games” and “Do We Not Live in Dreams?”). Major General deserves much wider attention than it will probably receive, but if you read Bollocks! and have ever liked any of the music I have liked, you have no excuse for not getting Major General right now.