Franz Nicolay: Major General

The Hold Steady's pianist mostly leaves the keyboards to the side and picks up a guitar for his solo debut. The uptempo songs work well, but the ballads, not so much.

Franz Nicolay

Major General

Label: Fistolo
US Release Date: 2009-01-13
UK Release Date: 2009-01-13

The problem with opening up an album with all guns blazing is that the rest of the record has to live up to that first song. Franz Nicolay runs into this problem on Major General, his debut as a solo artist. Nicolay is probably most famous as the mustachioed, beret-wearing pianist for the Hold Steady, providing fist pumps and backing vocals to frontman Craig Finn's conversational lyrics. Nicolay also runs with a handful of other New York City-based music collectives, most of them obscure (World/Inferno Friendship Society, Anti-Social Music, Guignol) and decidedly retro. His mustache and accordion skills put him in high demand among these outfits, apparently, but Major General draws as much from the punk energy of the Hold Steady as it does from the early 20th century cabaret style of these other acts.

Case in point, the aforementioned album opener "Jeff Penalty". Nicolay recruits New York City punkers Demander to be his backing band on the song, and they give off a crackling energy. Nicolay's lyrics are especially sharp here, as he relates the true story of seeing the Dead Kennedys play without Jello Biafra, and how the crowd was won over by the performance in spite of themselves: "It was the greatest karaoke show, I had ever seen / Who could blame him? / Certainly not me / They hit 'Holiday in Cambodia' / And 500 people screamed". The song ends with Hold Steady-style "Whoa-oh-ohs" from the whole band, and the stage is set for something pretty special. But Nicolay knows he can't match that energy again right away, so the bouncy, slightly jazzy, banjo-backed "Hey Dad!" comes next, followed by "World/Inferno vs. The End of the Evening", a slow 6/8 weeper about working class love and loss.

While "World/Inferno" is quite effective, it also provides the first clue of problems to come down the road. Nicolay's baritone voice closely resembles that of a classic lounge singer, so as soon as the lyrics aren't up to snuff, the mid-tempo and slower material starts to get soggy. The very next song, "Dead Sailors", is supposed to be gritty and emotional, but the minor-key, piano-driven cabaret-like arrangement does the lyrics no favors. Next up, "Do We Not Live in Dreams?" is full-on cheese, all acoustic guitar lite jazz (there's even a clarinet solo!) with Franz in total lounge mode.

Major General regains its equilibrium a bit with the rocker "Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova". It's catchy, and the lyrics again find some of the bite that the early songs on the album showed. Unfortunately, the rest of the disc continues to bounce back and forth between quality rockers and limp ballads. "Quiet Where I Lie" and "Nightratsong" work, while "Note on a Subway Wall" and "X-Games" come off very corny and are hard to take seriously. There are a pair of exceptions to this rule, though. Not even the bright rock arrangement of "This World is an Open Door" can save the vapid homilies in the lyrics: "This world could be an open door / This light could strip you of your sins / This love could be a beacon / This song could live inside your skin". On the other hand, the quiet banjo-based acoustic arrangement of "Cease-Fire, or, Mrs. Norman Maine" works perfectly for the story about two down-and-out punk fans who can't quite make it work as a relationship.

In the end, the album has more good than bad, and is worth a listen for curious Hold Steady fans. Nicolay has clearly picked up some lyric-writing tricks from Craig Finn, because the lyrics here are great when he hits his mark. And when the musical arrangement matches up with those lyrics ("Confessions", "Cease Fire"), the songs border on great. Not to mention "Jeff Penalty", which may end up as one of the best songs of the year -- it alone almost makes the entire album worth a listen. But the rest of Major General, even at its best, never quite matches the excellence of that opening song.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.