There is ample space in the comment section below this post for you to call me a total pussy for liking Franz Nicolay’s Luck and Courage and you’re free to do that if you want; I’ve been called worse. Nicolay’s second solo album, his first since leaving the Hold Steady, is lovely in a small way and sometimes lovely in a small way is just what I’m looking for musically. And sometimes I like to watch The View and have a good cry. What’s wrong with that?
Seriously though, Franz Nicolay departed the Hold Steady late last year, and a few folks on the internet tried to manufacture controversy over some remarks he made when asked why he would want to stop being in arguably America’s finest rock ‘n’ roll band (Pitchfork, specifically. In an interview with Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler, a Pitchfork staffer offered their opinion of Nicolay’s departure and sounded like they were trying to pry some fightin’ words out of Kubler regarding his old bandmate. To Kubler’s credit, he didn’t take the bait and actually said he thought Nicolay was a good guy). Nicolay basically said he wants to do a lot of things musically and the Hold Steady only does one thing musically. He was right, by the way; it’s just that the one thing they do is “kick ass.” Essentially, Franz Nicolay used a clumsy metaphor to say what he should’ve said outright, but it shouldn’t cost his solo work any fans (and I don’t think it will). Luck and Courage is stuffed with musical ideas, none of which sound much like the Hold Steady (Nicolay’s first solo record, Major General, definitely contained some songs with a Hold Steady vibe, including one – “Jeff Penalty” – about the dude who replaced Jello Biafra in the Dead Kennedys). He really does go in more musical directions than his old band did and if you think that’s speaking ill of the Hold Steady, it’s possible that you are mentally retarded. The sheer quantity of approaches you take to music (or genres you tackle in one album) is immaterial to how good you are at actually making music. The Hold Steady only ever attempts to write rock songs and they write kickass rock songs. You could call that “playing to their strengths.” Franz Nicolay likes to get his troubadour on, wax a bit dramatic, and occasionally impersonate James Taylor (on Major General’s actually really lovely “Do We Not Live in Dreams”, for instance). He’s pretty good at all those things, although his pretty stuff is his best stuff and his rock songs don’t really rock in that really satisfying way a song like “Ask Her for Adderall” does. One thing is certain: no one can honestly accuse Nicolay of selling out – he didn’t leave the Hold Steady to join the Black-Eyed Peas or to have a reality show on TLC. There’s no way his paycheck from Luck and Courage will be as big as it would’ve been fromHeaven is Whenever and I have to assume that, given that fact, Nicolay’s concerns are not financial. So I guess I’m saying I respect the guy for following his musical intuition.
That musical intuition leads him down some interesting avenues, some of which are more rewarding than others. While the sudden leap from dour, I’m-so-far-from-my-baby balladry to bouncing, A.M. radio rock on “Anchorage (New Moon Baby)” is interesting, the song is still probably the weakest on Luck and Courage. More rewarding is Nicolay’s flair for the dramatic (think more Decemberists than, say, Freddie Mercury), although sometimes it manifests itself in purely instrumental choices: “My Criminal Uncle” starts with a horn flourish that could usher in a particularly hilarious bullfight and then charges into this rollicking tune about a guy who was “led astray by country songs.” “Ask anyone I know,” says the uncle, “Isn’t this how a man’s supposed to be?” Nicolay inhabits his narrators with gusto but never loses his offbeat humor; in “Z for Zachariah”, he is death stalking the land and, though the harmonies are beautiful, there’s something hilarious about him singing, “and I’ll pluck out your eyes.”
As a writer, Franz Nicolay is unsurprisingly capable (although “This Is Not a Pipe” is more than a little bit obvious, he pulls the song back from the edge of mediocrity with a really lovely melody) and careful not to overstate lines like “Let us not remain songless/ when affliction is upon us” (“Job 35:10”) and “anyone can be a god-fearing man on a mountain” (“Luck & Courage”). Nicolay’s tunes have an unassuming poetry to them and, like the songs of Mr. Mike Doughty, they’re quirky in a good way (as opposed to Jason Mraz, who is so deliberately “quirky” that you kinda wanna punch him in the face. And by “you”, I mean “me”).
Getting back to the total non-scandal of Nicolay’s departure from the Hold Steady, I think Luck and Courage offers compelling evidence that it was just time for Franz to go off and do his own thing. The man is an extremely talented musician who has a ton of ideas; I’m guessing the reason he’s having a go as a solo artist is that just about any band would be limiting to him after a while. That doesn’t diminish the Hold Steady at all, it just means they’re not a permanent home for someone like Franz Nicolay. And I’m not saying he’s a genius or anything either. Luck and Courage is probably better described as a restless album, albeit a good one. It gets a bit repetitive here and there, but its good moments are beautiful (the aforementioned “Job 35:10” and “The Last Words of Gene Autry” come to mind).
I keep wanting to use the word “panache” in relation to Franz Nicolay and his music. There’s a certain confident oddness to Luck and Courage that helps it to rise to something a little greater than the sum of its parts; it should be merely a modern soft rock record (and if you’ve read Bollocks! much at all, you know how I hate soft rock) but it ends up being an imaginative, if a little quiet, journey into the mind of a man whose music seems to be every bit as earnestly eclectic as his facial hair.