Sunday, January 25, 2009

Franz Nicolay - 'Major General'

Ignoring the lyrics, Major General makes clear that multi-instrumentalist and mustache enthusiast Franz Nicolay has an awesome life. The music falls between his two loves, The Hold Steady and World/Inferno Friendship Society (with the shadow of Meat Loaf always hovering nearby). The recording was done with a slew of friends, including Dresden Doll Brian Viglione, W/IFS leader Jack Terricloth, and the members of Demander, another of Nicolay’s many bands. Oh, and the cover alludes to the guy’s very cool ‘stache. All of Major General’s peppy bar band tunes are catchy and fun.

But not all of Major General’s songs are peppy, which is where Nicolay violates the sacred rule of bar bandiosity: Don’t play slow, sad songs. For almost every romper stomper, there’s a somber, awkwardly worded reflective ballad. Nicolay’s songs work best when they’re pushed to the max, when the words are pushed forward forcefully without too much melodrama. Quick cuts like “Jeff Penalty” and “The World is an Open Door” are over the top and exhilarating, but slow jams like “World/Inferno Vs. the End of the Evening” and “Note on a Subway Wall” are merely over the top. They kill the record’s flow.

Major General is uneven; there’s no denying it. Still, though, when the record is in full swing, it’s every bit as catchy as Stay Positive, Bat out of Hell, or Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s schmaltzy and alive. Album opener “Jeff Penalty” has got to be the best tribute to a Dead Kennedys member not named Jello Biafra, if not the only one of its kind. The whole song is pushed so far that it constantly feels like it’s about to collapse. Nicolay crams as much scene description in as he can while drummer Sivan Harlap pounds out off-kilter beats. By the time everyone hits the chorus, it’s like the second before a building demolition.

Other stand-outs include “Hey Dad!,” which leans closer to the W/IFS punk cabaret style, and “Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova,” which boasts one of the album’s best/worst lines in “What do I know about love except love songs?” The song goes on to list every woman Nicolay’s been with (highlights include “a politician’s daughter” and “a cartoonist with a thing for knives”). It’s cry-in-your-beer-beautiful and awfully self-aware, taking the time to deconstruct some of Nicolay’s less-than-stellar sexual experiences.

Despite its many knockouts, though, Major General is going to be a hard-sell for new fans, as it’s kind of redundant stylistically. It’s got the ’70s kitsch of operatic classic rock like The Hold Steady, and a bit of World/Inferno Friendship Society’s chutzpah, but ultimately it doesn’t top those bands’ records. I find it hard to believe Craig Finn wouldn’t have been cool with working “Jeff Penalty” into the next Hold Steady LP. While Major General is a pleasant extension, it’s by no means a successful breakaway.

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