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.
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.