Still probably best known as the erstwhile red wine quaffing, moustachioed, keyboard-mashing cheerleader in The Hold Steady, Franz Nicolay has actually enjoyed a rather successful solo career since his departure.
‘To Us, The Beautiful’ is Nicolay’s second Xtra Mile record after 2012’s ‘Do The Struggle’ and his fourth in total. To say he’s come a long way since solo debut ‘Major General’, released in 2008, would be a massive understatement.
Now an assured vocalist and lyricist, ‘To Us, The Beautiful’ is filled with huge torch songs, heartfelt acoustic numbers and buzzing three-minute pop songs, all of which he covers off with consummate ease. Vocally, there are moments where he reminds me of a less frantic Hutch Harris (The Thermals) – but it ensures his vocal delivery remains interesting throughout. He’s also developed hugely when it comes to arranging songs. ‘Shallow Water’, for example, is a stark, stripped back rootsy affair, but the duelling boy/girl vocals and plucked banjo line ensures it stands up well alongside the more bombastic efforts on the record.
However, it’s in these blustering moments that ‘To Us, The Beautiful’ really shines. The title track is a grin-inducing punk rock stomp brimming with ‘Whoah Whoah’ backing vocals and a monolithic chorus, while ‘Wrestlers’, another straight-up rock song, is a galloping lesson in storytelling. It’s perhaps no surprise these punk-edged blasts stand out considering Leftover Crack’s Ara Babajian and former Against Me! bassist Andrew Seward were on hand in the studio, but regardless, they very much feel like a comfy pair of slippers, and Nicolay wears them splendidly.
Elsewhere, ‘The Pilot Inside’ is a gorgeous indie-pop song, again beautifully arranged and brilliantly infectious, while ‘Your Body’ opens like it was culled from The Hold Steady’s ‘Separation Sunday’ sessions. Sounding like a knowing nod to ‘Multitude of Casualties’ (even down to the reference of Boulder), it’s a jaunty little number that’s brimming with heart and soul and encapsulates the appeal of Nicolay in four all-too-brief minutes.
There are a couple of miss-steps – both ‘According to Plan’ and ‘Bring Me A Mirror’ are perhaps too gentle to stand up to the more rocking moments – but they are no less charming than anything else on offer. And to be honest, when you can pen a closer as rousing and fulfilling as the brilliant ‘Porta Fenestella’, you should be allowed to indulge your sensitive side.
‘To Us The Beautiful’ by Franz Nicolay is out now on Xtra Mile.
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)