Franz Nicolay – [10” EP]

Tuesday, 02 March 2010

If the last few years and the proliferation of solo and side projects that have appeared from major label artists have taught us anything, it's that the practice of a big-time band member striking out from his/her established project and releasing new music can be a dicey proposition. Much of the success or failure of a solo endeavor can be attributed to the personal sensibilities of that individual player; the results can be as strong as Wade MacNeil's Black Lungs, as fluffy as Perry Farrell's Satellite Party or as flat-out weak and ill-advised as Gavin Rossdale's last solo album but, in each case, the onus and responsibility for the work falls squarely on that player's shoulders. There is nothing and no one to hide behind and no excuses one could make that will hold water, the player in question owns that shit. A solo album can represent the pinnacle of a musician's powers, or it can be the albatross that exposes just how much of a group effort those great albums by the player's “other” band are.

That sounds like a harrowing position to be in, but sometimes it does work out well and actually shows  a tremendous amount of strength and creative faculty too; such is the case with Franz Nicolay's new EP, St. Sebastian of the Short Stage.

As it turns out, when he's not playing keys with The Hold Steady or grooming his picturesque moustache, Nicolay is all about having fun with his friends – a fact typified by the St. Sebastian of the Short Stage EP. While only four tracks long across two sides, St. Sebastian actually offers a fantastic portrait portrait of a player because there is no sense that the music is the work of a commercially-minded performer. It's raw and candid and the coverage of the emotional spectrum here proves to be more fulfilling than well over half of the other side projects that have come along recently.

Nicolay gets the short set started with a bang as, with a little help from fellow New Englanders The Dresden Dolls, he simultaneously lets listeners know where he's from and what to expect from him. With unwavering gang vocals, an accordion and fantastic drumming, Nicolay and The Dolls cut loose and have fun as they name-check landmarks and colorful locales with all the love any well-adjusted singer might have but, unlike so many other songwriters that have tried the same stunts, Nicolay doesn't come of as sappy or overwrought. He couldn't even if he wanted to – the sentiment is too fluffy and celebratory for that. From there, the good vibes continue into “The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Jr.” which, again, gets kept lighter than the song's title implies as “Flight Of The Valkyries” leads it into the skippity-tap drumming, tubular bells and accordion-driven salubriousness. There are moments on side one where the infectious enthusiasm in the songs recalls Picaresque-era Decemberists in its' unabashed joy joy and willingness to be silly in order to lighten hearts; even when the singer begs listeners to “start off with the saddest thing you know” which comes off as an invitation to sing along.

In just two tracks, listeners will be feeling pretty jubilant, but every event requires a resolution and side two is referred to as “The Depressing Side” on the back cover of the album for a reason. In comparison to side one, both “I Just Want To Love” and “When The War Came” could indeed be viewed as depressing, but they're also the songs that forego the fluff and find Nicolay sharpening his songwriting chops. “When The War Came” strips the party of Side One down to just an acoustic guitar and very spare piano pattering as it remembers back to the calm and perfect frozen moments that happened right before a terrible storm as well as the fallout that hits when everyone realizes that nothing will ever be the same (or as good) as it was. As jubilant as Side One was, “When The War Came” is a beautiful, sobering moment.

After the good times from Side One and the debilitating hangover of “When The War Came” subsides, all that remains is to pick up the pieces and press on – which is exactly what “I Just Want To Love” does. Sounding shattered but needing to believe in something (“Maybe there was an age of romance” pleads the singer) Nicolay grasps at every straw within reach on “I Just Want To Love” but finds none suitable to support him. It might be crushing defeat for most, but Nicolay still has the will to believe there is something out there for him. That sort of belief against all odds is the most beautiful thing on St. Sebastian of the Short Stage and it's sort of incredible that such growth and dramatic evolution was possible in just four songs. The singer has listeners all-in from the beginning and keeps them engaged through every minute of the EP's short run-time. Very few songwriters are capable of grabbing and holding the attention of listeners like that but, in St. Sebastian of the Short Stage, Franz Nicolay proves that he does, clearly. That's a pretty incredible power; here's hoping he wields it well on future releases.



The St. Sebastian of the Short Stage 10” EP comes out on March 30, 2010 through Team Science Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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