Personnel: Franz Nicolay (vocals, guitar, banjo, accordion, keyboards, percussion); Yoni Gordon (vocals, guitar); Andrew Seward, Maria Sonevytsky (vocals); Jean Cook (violin); Ara Babajian (drums).
On his third solo album, 2012's Do the Struggle, Brooklyn-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and general boy about town Franz Nicolay combined elements of his wide-reaching musical résumé into a dark pastiche of textural, eclectically influenced songcraft. Haunted production from members of Dälek added a sometimes cluttered electronic edge to the album's already busy tunes, which ranged from shouty folk-punk anthems to maudlin Balkan jazz-tinged story-songs. Nicolay resets his focus with fourth album To Us, the Beautiful!, a collection of songs that tend toward the more traditional aspects of his radically diverse songwriting styles. The album breaks out of the gates with its emphatic title track, a song based loosely on a Ukrainian toast that finds Nicolay shouting proclamations over distorted, chugging guitars and folk-punk rhythms. There are elements of both the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn in Nicolay's literary, often storytelling songs, especially in the dense imagery of "Marfa Lights" or the more harrowing, darker sentiments of folk dirge "Bring Me a Mirror." The Hold Steady comparison makes some sense, as Nicolay spent years as a touring member of the band. Rather than the booze-soaked working-class epiphanies of that band, these vivid lyrical constructions tend more toward complex dissection of broken love, travel experiences, and existential angst, as on the dour but headstrong album closer "Porta Fenestella." As a whole, To Us, the Beautiful! is a more cohesive document than some of Nicolay's previous work, sounding more driven and inspired, with more straightforward arrangements making the emotionally overpowering tunes easier to digest. ~ Fred Thomas