When Franz Nicolay announced that he was leaving The Hold Steady, many wondered how the band would cope without his trademark keyboard and organ riffs and how their live performances would be poorer for the absence of the mustache-wearing, always snazzily dressed Nicolay. What received less attention was the question how Nicolay himself would compensate for the lack of Craig Finn in his life. Live, the two made for a visual double act that added to the sweaty thrill of a Hold Steady gig, and the combination of Finn’s Husker Du riffs and Nicolay’s trilling melodies and backing vocals was one of the band’s trademarks.
Nicolay’s first solo album, Major General, was an agreeable slab of slightly theatrical folk-rock ‘n’ roll that succeeded in showing off the multi-instrumentalist’s versatility. But although the lyrics were of a high standard throughout, the songs often sounded overwrought and overly thought out. Luck and Courage has improved in that aspect – there still are flashes of accordion and brushed drums, along with banjo, slide guitar, violin and organ sounds, but there is a loose coherence to Nicolay’s new songs that make them a lot more listenable.
The male/female vocal harmonies on the folky opener ‘Felix & Adelita’ (two characters that reappear elsewhere on the record – a device nicked from his ex-colleague Finn?) are employed cleverly and revisited in ‘Z for Zachariah’, a typically wry observation with some biblical references and an oddly violent undertone. Nicolay’s vocal style is a reminiscent of John Darnielle’s screechy, almost spoken-word ramblings and takes some getting used to. Another similarity to The Mountain Goats is the relative lack of actual hooks – there’s no “Constructive Summer” on this record.
But as an experienced writer, Nicolay knows how to use words to keep the listener interested, and there are lines hidden in almost every song that summon a whole plethora of images and scenarios from lonely lives led in America. “It is not raining // My shoe is not untied // I have not been unhappy my whole life” from the otherwise slightly dull ‘This is Not a Pope’ is one example, “Anyone can be a god-fearing man on a mountain// It’s easy to be a good boy in the circus” from the title track another.
There are enough moments and lyrics for friends of good singer/songwriters to enjoy, but people who preferred the upbeat, catchy Hold Steady material should look elsewhere. Maybe dig out those Replacements albums?