I had listened to Franz Nicolay’s solo debut Major General—out next week—twice and still couldn’t get my head around it. I was meeting Nicolay, the keyboardist for The Hold Steady and World/Inferno Friendship Society, the next day for drinks, and I had no idea what I thought about his music.
After shaking hands, I sat down and clicked on my tape recorder, a Sony Clear Voice Plus, I had bought at Staples two hours earlier. I had no questions prepared, just my beer and my courage.We started talking about his life growing up in the woods of New Hampshire and how he got to this point, getting ready to tour behind his first solo album. He seemed excited about the whole experience, glad to finally be in control. “I’ve been in volved in a lot of projects that people know, and people know who I am, but always sort of with a parenthesis, like Franz Nicolay of The Hold Steady,” he explained.
“So that’s what I want to try and build, sort of gradually erase the parenthesis.” When we started talking about the album, I tried not to be shy. I also tried not to stare at his long curling mustache— but that was impossible. I told him the first thing that struck me was his singing sounded a little bit like Meat Loaf. He laughed and then started teaching me about the roots of his shameless over-thetop vocals, from vaudeville to Jimmy Durante to the 1950s crooners. “It’s a singing style that has gone out of style,” he explained, “especially in indie rock.” “There is a particular way of singing in indie rock that really gets under my skin, this sort of mewling, muttering… I think of it as really passive,” he said. Nicolay’s style is a reaction to this:The songs are sometimes sentimental, sometimes angry and always tell a story.They are in your face and aggressive in a scene where it’s not cool to be aggressive.Tracks like “Dead Sailors” and “This World is an Open Door” are good places to start.
Not only contributing vocals, Nicolay plays the guitar, accordion, banjo and piano and arranged strings for the album.
Judging from his past work, one might expect a perfect conglomeration of all the styles of the bands he’s worked with: a gypsy-vaudeville-classic-rock-punk fused album.That wouldn´t be too far off. Major General has pieces of everything he’s been a part of. In fact, a number of the songs are misfits that didn’t make it into other projects.Then I got it:The songs work as an album because of the singing.The only way to make all these musical styles work on a single album is to present them in the same way—completely unabashed.
The big question is, will fans of the Hold Steady understand? “I would hope people trust me. I’ve written a lot of songs that people like. I’ve played on a lot of records that people like, so trust me on this one.You know, give it a couple listens.”