Franz Nicolay may well be one of the most under-appreciated multi-instrumentalists out there. He made an indelible mark with his contribution to The Hold Steady, and has continued to produce interesting music since leaving the band in 2010. Alongside his solo projects, he's worked as a producer, and even popped up as a touring member in Against Me! His fourth solo album, 'To Us, The Beautiful', scales back his unique and quirky musical touches, creating perhaps his most accessible record to date.
At its heart, this is a pure punk-rock record, predominantly filled with loud guitars and catchy hooks. It's not a massive surprise either, considering the band that Nicolay has assembled. The players include the aforementioned Against Me!'s Andrew Seward on bass and Leftover Crack's Ara Babajan on drums. There's little of Nicolay's familiar use of accordion and banjo, however that just seems to have focused his songwriting, which has always had a tendency to rely on those instruments to make him stand out from the crowd. The result is an adrenaline charged record that's a lot of fun to listen to.
The album title itself derives from the Ukrainian drinking toast: 'To us, the beautiful, and to those who disagree, may their eyes fall out'. That's perhaps the perfect reflection of the record's balance between boisterous celebration and punk-rock anger. But what really elevates the material beyond a sonic assault on the senses is Nicolay's turn of phrase. There are many reference points in the lyrics, from John Cooper Clarke to the religious histories of Jerusalem and Athens. When he pulls out lines like 'only your first tattoo has to mean something, then you can get something dumb to fill the rest in' on 'Everything is Going According To Plan', he's hard to ignore. He's almost self-aware of how easily his lyrics capture the imagination, because later on the same track he states: 'there are just some turns of phrase that I viscerally hate, like tears don't roll down faces. They slide like slugs, ugly'. It's those moments that make this an album that lives with after you've pressed the pause button.
Perhaps the stand-out moment is one of the few occasions where Nicolay does introduce a broader instrumental palette. 'Shallow Water' features a strangely compelling banjo line that underpins the guitar, a call and response chorus, and some haunting lyrics about talking fish and taking 'your pay in blood'. It fits perfectly onto the record despite the different approach demonstrating that Nicolay doesn't feel constrained to only turn everything up to 11 throughout.
'To Us, The Beautiful' is a bold and confident statement from an artist that's managed to stay off many people's radars, despite his prior involvement with the likes of The Hold Steady and the Revival Tour. If you need an introduction to Nicolay, this may be the perfect point to get on board.
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