With a tiny, in the most literal terms, release of his debut in 2007, Franz Nicolay chose the right time to release his second offering of music. The band he plays keyboards for (The Hold Steady) just finished the release of their fourth album and have clearly cemented themselves as one of the greater Rock ‘n Roll bands currently making music. With this accord, Nicolay’s timely keyboard contributions and back-up vocals are beginning to garner more and more attention. And now, Major General finds us with an accomplished and very steady collection of songs.
To be succinct, this is a solid rock album, from top to bottom. Knowing Nicolay’s background would suggest some kind of piano-filled balloon but instead, he has married his styles to create a strong set of songs. Rockers, “Jeff Penalty” and “This World is an Open Door,” are balanced out with gentler, retro slices of smoothness like “World/Inferno vs. the End of the Evening.” The latter is filled with a stirring climax that features Nicolay harmonizing with a female counterpart; the music is then sustained by strings and a wondrous set of ascending chords. One thing if for sure, Nicolay writes earnest, genuine lyrics that carry a certain soul to them.
Nicolay has a great voice and the music is adequately fitted to convey and showcase this. On the aforementioned, “The World is an Open Door,” he sings with the gusto and realness that recalls Springsteen and the hand-claps and jamming guitar doesn’t hurt either. A song like “Note on a Subway Wall,” which is all built and supported by grand piano chords that sound like they could be played in a wide open hall, Nicolay doesn’t shy away from the melody and he allows his voice to command what happens in the song—emotion, regret, honesty—in a poignant manner.
There is plenty of variety to keep even the most fickle fans in check. Songs like “Hey Dad!” and “Cease-Fire, or, Mrs. Norman Maine” are fine slices of banjo-infused music; while others like closer, “I’m Done Singing,” feature a more laid-back and jazzy vibe to Nicolay’s music. It’s with these much-needed dimensions that the music can flow back and forth into a seamless trail of relaxed styles and moods.
Make no mistake, though, when Nicolay rocks, he rocks hard. “Nightratsong” is another one of those Springsteen-esque tunes that feature some of Nicolay’s catchiest choruses. And the imagery-filled lyrics prove that he is a fine songwriter all on his own. With subject matter that revolves around everyday life and the people that live it, Nicolay focuses on the themes that crowd these people’s struggles and joys.
This is a pleasant success due to the vibrant and energy that Nicolay is able to embrace in his music. There isn’t anything showy on Major General and there is also nothing amazingly different from what he plays with his main band. But that’s just the thing, this is a worthy project all on its own and one that can proudly stand on its own two feet.