If you've ever seen Franz Nicolay perform with any of the handful of bands he’s a part of, chances are you’ve fallen in love with his delightful mustachioed smile, voluptuous sideburns, skilled musicianship, or the way his free hand flails in the hair when singing backup vocals. Well, now there’s a new reason to love Franz Nicolay: his songwriting.
Even whilst hopping around the globe with international superstars like the Hold Steady, cult cabaret-punk favorites World/Inferno Friendship Society, moonlighting in punk mainstays like Leftover Crack, the Living End and upstarts like Star Fucking Hipsters, Nicolay squeezed in time to write and record his 2007 demo disc The Black Rose Paladins before his debut solo full-length, Major General.
Those already familiar with Nicolay’s various aforementioned contributions will not be surprised by the skillful and proficient musicianship present on Major General, as the multi-instrumentalist demonstrates a mastery of his craft upon a varied host of strings and keys, not unlike the opposite coast’s Darius Koski of the Swingin’ Utters, Filthy Thieving Bastards, the Re-Volts and now his own solo work.
What may be surprising is the depth of Nicolay’s songwriting, rooted in a loose foundation of equal parts folk, rock, punk and jazz, yet with the lyrical charm of a hapless proletariat poet, picking up the minutia of living on Earth in between urban storytelling and dramatic musical interpretations. Case in point is the piano-ballad “Note on a Subway Wall” that witnesses Nicolay musing reflectively, “Did you ever leave a note for me in graffiti / On a subway wall / That said ‘I’m so sad, I’m so sorry, I love you so much I could die from guilt / I feel so bad everyday’? / Well someone left it for someone / And I read it again and again / Until the train came and took me away.” Arguably the best track on Major General is the enormously catchy “Nightratsong,” with a jazzy punk flavor reminiscent of the Minutemen and a composition rich with horns, strings and chain of backup “doot doot doo-doot” vocals. Plucked from his earlier demo sessions, “Jeff Penalty” chronicles an account of witnessing the “reformed” Dead Kennedys as “the greatest karaoke show ever seen” before arriving at a more ambivalent -- even apologetic -- “I’m sorry Jeff What’s-his-name if we didn’t take you serious / But the punks all still sang along when they got to the chorus.”
At times, Major General is overtly positive (“This World Is an Open Door”), while other times more somber (“I’m Done Singing”). Still other times, Nicolay is pensive and lost in thought out loud (“Cease-Fire, or, Mrs. Norman Maine,” “Do We Not Live in Dreams?”). Throughout the record, though, Franz Nicolay never ceases to delight with his wonderful multi-instrumental compositions, veteran musicianship and engaging insight.