Words by Sean Moeller // Illustration by Johnnie Cluney // Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
And we all thought that Craig Finn's songs were rife with characters galore - the townies and the hoodrats, the dirt track horses and the alcoholics beyond repair. Well, Finn's former Hold Steady bandmate Franz Nicolay, the piano player with the Rollie Fingers curl and waxy hold to his black mustache, has nearly trumped the output of salty, mentally charred and disfigured gentlemen and gentle ladies with his solo writings. The people - far-off acquaintances, close personal friends and men of legendary catastrophe and woe, from whichever source of attention - are as broke down and troubled as any that the lyrical genius Finn has sired and grown older with since that band began in Minneapolis five years ago. Where the people that Finn creates bring to mind the sensibilities of rogue scholars and angels with broken halos, gone all adrift and contemplating all of the deeper religious meanings in a punk rock way that involves loud rock shows and copious amounts of cheap, cheap alcohol, Nicolay's people come across as rogue sailors and those lost more in a sea of anger rather than a sea of apathy.
It's not to suggest that the Hold Steady's stable of regulars are apathetic, but there is more of a hands-tied approach to living that's occasionally - not always - been settled into. It's a despair sort of thing that's fun to fuck around with when it's recognized that the other shoe has dropped. The shoes don't give them blisters any longer because they've been wearing them so long now. There's some adjusting and some wicked twisting in the sheets sometimes, as comfort still doesn't come easily, but they're generally resigned to sleeping off the hangovers and letting the time pass rapidly. A blowout here or there is an anomaly, when the buzz is fitting into the body just right.
Nicolay treats us to songs that float between the odes of men ready to make amends and men wanting to break things, men who are just shaking from being too livid or too slighted. These are men who haven't gotten over caring all the same. They're not too old to have their feathers ruffled or their asses embarrassingly chapped by someone who doesn't deserve the right to step all over the trodden frames and loose-leaf limbs. Nicolay does a similar version of the Finn speak-sing that, when done right, is a helluva story-telling technique and he does it well, bringing you closer to these worked up souls, the ones who can't need to vent. The stories that he tells are often more intense and bizarre, as if they were partly mythological - in a very urban sense - and also very believable as urban tall tales might go. There's a song entitled "Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova" where Franz himself is the main object of the ire (and maybe that's the case throughout - not some phony, drummed up personality to write scripts for) of a woman who's been burned, figuratively, and probably bloodied quite literally. She says, er he repeats in a gush of tough air and gritted teeth, an intolerable bite to the daggers, "She yelled, 'Fuck you Franz,' from the back of an ambulance, but she whispered, 'I'll still fuck you, the next time we dance,' I took the chance, I don't think I was wrong," and then in a half second, she's broken his nose. But…they still fucked. It's hard to tell if this could or should be considered a happy ending or a conclusion worth some kind of round of applause. The guess is that it isn't nor should it get one of the latter. It's good to just be prepared for the next right and the next fire that will consume and burn up everything in its path - Franz, these drinking songs, the dancing ones and the Celtic dirges, the women, the frays, all of it.