Franz Nicolay embodies a seamless blend of old school vaudeville and modern New York circus-punk revival. Fluent in writing and composing, cheap red wine and stylish mustache wax, keyboard, accordion, whimsy and a flurry of other magic tricks, Nicolay can be counted on to give all of his many projects that little extra something. Although it was sad to hear Nicolay was leaving his four-year stint as keyboardist of the Hold Steady earlier this year, it was also kind of inevitable, and we consoled ourselves by knowing it couldn't be long until Nicolay dived into something new and exciting. After spending some time promoting his short story collection, his collaboration with Guignol, and touring with Against Me!, Nicolay has finally released his second solo album, Luck and Courage
, which is a collection of surprisingly minimal troubadour-style songs that tone down instrumental intensity to focus on storytelling.
Nicolay's solo debut in 2008, Major General
, bore some noticeable World/Inferno Friendship Society influence — after seven years in the anarcho-circus band, Nicolay infused General with whiskey-swilling anthemic bar ballads, loud songs that matched defiant punk rock with poignant lyrics. Luck and Courage
tones all of that down. It's softer, folkier, stripped down to Nicolay's cabaret tales and relatively simple backing music. According to Nicolay, this is sort of a concept album concerned with luck and courage personified as Felix and Adelita, and the push and pull between staying and leaving, love and distance, and similar emotional dualities. Sometimes this is extremely effective as with the haunting "Z is for Zachariah," sometimes it leaves something to be desired. Listeners looking for Nicolay's trademark circus will be met with sad clowns and exhausted acrobats, a ringmaster sitting on the stage smoking a cigar and ashing into his top hat.
The album could be a lot more effective if it wielded more infectious tracks, like the standout "Have Mercy." In that, the music keeps up with the epic lyricism — pounding chords intermingling with screeching violins to give dramatic lyrics like "I was the red king on a moonlight flight / I was the danger in a drunken night" sinister urgency. Another highlight is the redemptive "Anchorage (New Moon Baby)" which starts out with soft banjo, and builds cheery whistling and sha-la-la harmonies into the promise of a homecoming. There are standout moments of characteristic intensity, there are catchy progressions of oddly Springsteen-esque piano, and of course there are striking lyrics. (When Nicolay sings "When I sleep in strange beds my tattoo swells like a bad reaction" on the title track, there's a moment of almost John Darnielle-esque rawness.)
On one hand, it's interesting to see Nicolay reel in excess and focus on the songwriting angle, but on the other hand it's frustrating because we know by now he's capable of some sublime gut-punching knockouts. In a Paste interview earlier this year, Nicolay discussed the idea of emulating a traveling minstrel, and if I stumble into a shabby cabaret somewhere along the proverbial highway, these stripped down serenades are exactly what I'd love to hear. But on the album itself, I can't help wondering what they would sound like a little bigger, a little more baroque.
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MP3: "Have Mercy"
Franz Nicolay on Myspace