Franz Nicolay - To Us, The Beautiful! (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Franz Nicolay

To Us, The Beautiful! (2015)

Silver Sprocket

“To us, the beautiful! And to those who disagree, may their eyes fall out,” declares Franz Nicolay in the first seconds of “To Us, The Beautiful!,” the title track of Nicolay’s fourth solo release. The line, taken from a Ukranian toast, sets the tone for a boisterous 12-song collection, the latest from the former Hold Steady and World/Inferno Friendship Society multi-instrumentalist.

Recorded in six days, To Us, The Beautiful! shows Nicolay leading a guitar-driven band on what is Nicolay’s most accessible solo album to date. Andrew Seward (Against Me!, Human Parts) and Ara Babajian (Leftover Crack, Slackers) form a strong rhythm section providing muscle behind the title track, “Perfect Rhyme,” and “Open With the Wrestlers.” It’s a bit surprising at first, as Nicolay’s previous releases, particularly 2012’s Do The Struggle were a bit more experimental in their instrumentation (by traditional rock standards), and these songs are much more straightforward. Nicolay has acknowledged this on his website, saying that if he has learned anything, “it’s that people basically like guitar-pop records. If I make another record, it probably won’t be anything like this.”

Lyrics have always been one of Nicolay’s strong points, and To Us, The Beautiful! is no exception. Whether it’s the acid-tongued barb of “If we’re the company we keep, I must be stupid and cheap” (“Imperfect Rhyme”) or the philosophical musing that “only your first tattoo has to mean something, then you can get something dumb to fill the rest in. It’s only skin” (“Everything is Going According to Plan”), Nicolay’s talent for painting a picture using only words show that he is, after all, a storyteller at heart.

“Bring Me a Mirror” slows the pace, with only Nicolay slowly picking at his acoustic guitar. He sings softly, the silences between notes and words just as vital a part of the music as the guitar and vocal. “Talk to Him in Shallow Water” has a southern feel, built around a banjo line and female backing vocal. A shuffling beat accompanies them, evoking the marching of a dying soldier, as the song closes to the line “Lay down as night gets colder/Never more to be a soldier.” The final song, “Porta Fenestella” is a six-minute epic that rises and falls dramatically, with false endings that only serve as pauses for Nicolay’s band to build it all back up again. “I was too old for this when I was too young for this/I was too young to quit when I was too old for this” fading out to the album’s close.

Prior to its release, Nicolay wrote on his website that the recording of To Us, The Beautiful!” was fun and felt easy. “I’m pleased if you like it,” he wrote, “If you don’t, that’s fine too. It’s a big world.” Nicolay needn’t worry, fans will like it immediately. Never listened to him before? This is a good place to start.