“I met a man who got his 5-year-old a Bocephus tattoo … It got out of his hands, and this got out of mine too”

Franz Nicolay is a grown-ass musician. He’s a monster lyricist and a virtuoso showman. Like Peckinpah or Degas or Cather, Nicolay’s art is near relentless–the listener is advised to be patient and pay attention. Like Jonathan Richman or David Berman, his perspective covers 360 degrees: he doesn’t miss a nuance or mix a metaphor. But he’s also a genius with melody, fusing together punk polkas and klezmer discos and appalachian show tunes into something catchy and charged. So who better to put out a record this year, a year into Occupy, a year when it became both more and less fashionable than ever to use the government to strip rights from women, from unions, and hand them to plutocrats, than historian-of-sorts and ever-dependable story-teller Franz Nicolay? He has given us a record called Do the Struggle! It’s perfect. It’s close to getting The Times They Are A-Changing during the Civil Rights Movement, Orozco murals during the Mexican Revolution. Consider this a valuable document as well as one of the best albums of the year, a standard-raising addition to Essential Listening.

“We’d recreate the rapture with a sex doll and some helium … These days, chaos for its own sake is at a premium”

Do the Struggle isn’t a lecture album, though. It resists through story and attitude. On some songs, Nicolay’s literary schmaltz is so sincere it almost ceases to be schmaltz, but the schmaltz is so valuably charming that it’s never discarded, especially on the album’s first single “Did Your Broken Heart Make You Who You Are?,” the duet with ukulelist/songwriter Emilyn Brodsky “Take No Prisoners,” and the fiercely Romantic “The Day All the Leaves Came Down.”

Those songs supplement the album’s main mood, the vitriolic testing of common wisdom. “The Hearts of Boston,” “Frankie Stubbs’ Tears,” and “Live Free” are live show staples, full of road-worn advice, a greek chorus, and some infectious “whoa-oh”s. “You Don’t Know I’m Here” is told through a tree weighing whether it’s better to be part of the foreground or the background. It finishes with one of the strongest verses of the album.

The title track, “Do the Struggle,” is the lynch pin song, detailing the resistance of a group of conceptual artist-activist-terrorists against dissatisfaction and tedium and everything and nothing. Most writers couldn’t help but over-write that song, I over-wrote that one sentence describing it. But Nicolay spins a convoluted tale with the eloquence to make it elegant. It’s a scary song. Once again, the final two verses fully realize the potential of this album coming at this time.

Just past the half-way point comes the remarkable “The Migration of the Cuckoo,” a multi-part banjo-and-drums rocker the equal of genius arrangements such as Hot Water Music’s “220 Years” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Get Up.”

Only on the last song, “Joy,” can you really feel the presence of the album’s producer, underground hip-hop artist oktopus. The Band nerds may be reminded of Robbie Robertson‘s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, produced by techno DJ Howie B. “Joy” is a kick-ass coda and it makes you realize how tightly managed all the beats have been heretofore.

An amazing effort from everyone involved with this album. It nails the tone, the words, the timing. It’s great. You’d do well to give it a listen.

“When life gives you lemons … Rub them in the open wounds of your enemies”

Franz Nicolay – Do The Struggle
Franz Nicolay – Frankie Stubbs’ Tears
Franz Nicolay – The Hearts Of Boston
Franz Nicolay – The Migration Of The Cuckoo

Buy Do the Struggle direct from the artist at Nicolay’s bandcamp. CD release from Xtra Mile Recordings. Also available on iTunes and Amazon. Listen to demos for most of these songs on Nicolay’s tour EP called Live Free, also on his bandcamp. Visit Nicolay’s extensive website with lyrics and stuff.

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.