"Explaining everything to the geeks."

Welcome to Modern Suburbanite, a repository for thoughts on arcane pop cultural artifacts, rock and roll nerddom, and shiny objects which might strike my fancy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Catching Up with Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay has been a busy man, indeed. When we last heard from the multitalented Mr. Nicolay, he was on the road with Against Me! and readying songs for his second full-length solo outing, Luck and Courage  (out now via Team Science; stream the album at Punknews.org.) He returns to the stage this fall and embarks on a tour with Two Cow Garage in November.

"This Is Not a Pipe" (from Luck and Courage)

Franz was kind enough to respond to a second round of questions for Modern Suburbanite.

First, is it fair to call Luck and Courage a “concept album”? Is it meant as a linear narrative?

It is not. It's allusive and intertwined, but not a linear story. In my head, it's parallel stories: of two characters who can't, or won't, make their relationship work. And, of course, one can always feel the end of a relationship coming, like a change in the weather, or a gathering sickness. And so there's a metaphoric mirror-narrative of this plague-ridden country. But the overall theme is one of domesticity vs. wanderlust. Most bluntly in "Anchorage." An anchorage, of course, is where you anchor your boat. But it's a traveling song.

Listening to the opening track, I get a tremendous sense of movement- the drums, the urgency in your voice, and the overall sound. In a way, it reminds me of “America” by Simon and Garfunkel- that “nation of two” of Vonnegut’s that you’ve talked about. Did you set out to write these songs as this sort of narrative, or did it evolve over time?

It evolved that way. These things present themselves. The opening track literally came to me in a dream, word for word, and I got up and wrote it out. So who knows how things congeal. It's funny, you're the second person who's asked me about Simon and Garfunkel - this other guy compared "Luck & Courage," the title track, to "59th Street Bridge," which I guess mostly has to do with the groove of it; and something about having a lot of words but still being melodic. But the first track, it's so open-ended in its narrative that there was obviously more to tell. The characters aren't communicating much to each other, much less us.

Was the relationship between Felix and Adelita an outgrowth of the “Old Testament” mindset you had previously mentioned, or did it come out of something new?

It presented itself as a way of personalizing what I was already thinking, about the way life can make you pay for your past. Or at least, you have to make a reckoning with it before you can craft a new future.

There’s something that feels really optimistic about this record, especially the bookends (“Felix & Adelita” and “Luck & Courage”), despite the dark content. Was that juxtaposition intentional, or did it present itself as a “happy accident”?

 Well, from a dumb technical standpoint, most of the songs are in major keys, which is not something I often do. But there is a conscious emotional narrative built into the sequencing - the first four songs are a kind of introduction of the characters and their context; the middle third is quite dark; and "Anchorage" and "Gene Autry" are the relief. It's one of the reasons I left "Rock, Rinse, Repeat" off the record - good song, but it's got nothing to do with the arc of "Luck & Courage." It's free-standing.

You seem to be tipping your hat more and more to classic country, both in arrangements and in lyrical content. Is there a “Franz Nicolay Goes West” record in the future?

I found last year that all I wanted to listen to was country music. I was sick to death of rock and roll, and I love me some punk rock but the nature (and strength) of that is it doesn't lead to particularly nuanced songwriting. And one of the great strengths of country music is its ability to deal with, for lack of a better phrase, grown-up life: parenting, bankruptcy, work, property, and so on. Musically, one of the things I always love doing is toying with a template; that is, trying to work creatively within a genre format (Tin Pan Alley, classic rock), and country music and its arrangements are definitely a strict template. Of course, the big string sound of classic Nashville production appeals to my taste for melodrama. There's not a great deal that separates George Jones and Jacques Brel.

In our last interview, you mentioned your upcoming wedding. How does your bride-to-be feel about this collection of songs about a seriously damaged relationship?

You'd have to ask her. I would say that Felix & Adelita's isn't so much a damaged relationship as one that could go either way - obviously they have a real connection, but they're grown people who have had a lot of up-and-down relationships in the past, and have their own independent lives, and have to decide whether to compromise the way of living they've made work for themselves to take another shot at something they'd maybe written off. It's the way, I think, most people negotiate emotional choices in adult life. "The Last Words of Gene Autry" is a vision of one way that it could work out: the tenderness of a long-married, elderly couple.

Download "This Is Not a Pipe" at Paste Magazine.
For more info including tour dates, visit Franz Nicolay's website.
Contact the author here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

REVIEW: Bern and the Brights Shine on EP

Artist: Bern and the Brights
Album: Swing Shift Maisies EP
Label: Self-Released
Available at the band's website

At just under 20 minutes, Swing Shift Maisies is a strong EP by a band recording together for the first time without sounding as such (previous efforts were done piecemeal) and suggests that this is a band capable of making a bigger splash in coming releases.

That said, Bern & the Brights’ strongest moments come when they manage to capture some of the spark of their pre-“alternative,””college rock” forbears. The band’s bio mentions favorable comparisons to R.E.M., and they do manage to tap some of that group’s pre-Warner Bros. energy; however, the more apt comparison is the early 90s incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs, with both groups’ penchants for strings, jangle-pop guitars, and an energetic rhythm section. Moments in the record also recall the post-True Stories incarnation of Talking Heads, with ringing guitars and polyrhythmic flourishes dotting “Sangria Peaches” and “Sleepless Aristotle.”

A word about the band’s lineup: this is a two-guitar/violin/bass/drum band, which means they walk a very thin line. In similar settings, the presence of both a lead guitar and violin can spell disaster, with the violin left sounding like an afterthought rather than a participant in the song. In other acts, a violinist is like stunt casting on a sitcom, but in Bern & the Brights’ case, violinist Nicole Scorsone is scrappy enough to hold her own as a second lead instrument, playing off of Bernadette Malavarca’s guitar in a way that feels less like decoration and more like a key part of the song’s DNA.

(The set’s “odd track out” is its closer, “It Goes Like That,” which nicks a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” It’s the only song in which Scorsone’s violin seems inessential, though it gives the distinct impression that it may be a stronger live number.)

In less capable hands, this could be seen as an easily-abused pass, excusing acts for veering too far into the disastrous realms of coffeehouse and “lite” world beat of the sort that filters out of freshman dorm room stereos every fall- a lazy format a decade past the days of WOMAD and Lilith Fair.

Thankfully, this threat is largely sidestepped; the Brights’ arrangements work in the service of substance rather than style. Only one track on Swing Shift Maisies tops the five-minute mark (often the territory of jam bands and prog outfits), and none seem to overstay their welcome or become soggy in the middle.

Thought there’s nothing that would have been out of place during the heyday of Lilith Fair, the band manages to avoid the sense of complacency and generic tendencies that cursed other acts (after this point referred to as “McLaughlinisms.”) Rather, what Swing Shift Maisies suggests is that, for fans of jangle-pop who appreciate a brassy female lead and a healthy regard for a solid beat, these may really be the days, after all.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Modern Suburbanite Interview: Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a man of many talents, indeed- the New England-raised, New York-based singer/songwriter/composer/author is a co-founder of Anti-Social Music, a member of the anarchist-cabaret troupe World/Inferno Friendship Society, a member of The Hold Steady from Separation Sunday through Stay Positive and its supporting tour, and a collaborator with Mischief Brew and Guignol. In addition to preparing for an upcoming wedding, he has contributed to The Bushwick Book Club and is readying a followup to Major General, his 2009 solo release.

"Jeff Penalty" (with Demander, from Major General)

Franz is presently on tour with Against Me!, playing keyboards and providing vocals. He took some time out of his (very, very busy) schedule to answer some questions for Modern Suburbanite.

You’ve achieved two very iconic things this summer: you’ve played The Tonight Show and you signed the Green Monster at Fenway. What is it like now that you’re a part of a couple of bona fide cultural institutions?

FN: I can pretty much hang it up now, huh? My favorite thing about the Fenway trip was noticing that the Sox bullpen has a Jolly Roger hung on the inside of the centerfield wall. I figure that's got to be a Papelbon thing. (Ed note: the Sox relievers have had a "pirate" theme, complete with flag and parrot. More in this ESPN column.) I got my hands on the ballpark organ, too - but it's a little electric job stuck in the corner of the corporate suite bar. He can't even watch the game, he has a little black-and-white TV screen. Typical. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010



Thanks to everyone who has been checking out the site. We had a tremendous number of visits on Tuesday, which I suspect came as a result of tweets by Bryan Lee O'Malley and Edgar Wright (O'Malley confirms that Wright sent him the link first.) Thank you to Bryan and Edgar and to Carla Gillis and Catriona Sturton of Plumtree for being so gracious.

If you were following my tweets during the day, you know that my brain pretty much fell out- there were over 1300 visitors from 45 different countries in one day, which was amazing.

I still don't know what it'll take to earn some love from West Virginia and Vermont. If anyone has suggestions, let me know. (Vermont, especially- I already enjoy your ice cream and maple syrup and think Dr. Dean has an impressive handshake. What more can I do?)

I'm working on the next feature right now, but it may be a couple of days. If you haven't already done so, please click the RSS subscription button or choose to "follow" via the Google Friend Connect option. Either way, you'll know as soon as the next post goes up.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ten Years After Splitting, Halifax's Plumtree Gets Their Closeup with 'Scott Pilgrim.'

Think about the crushes you had in your teens and early twenties. For even the boldest kid on the block, there was still some knockout who inspired stammering, knots in the stomach, or- in some cases- a fuzzed-up sugarbomb of a song that puts any crummy MASH note you wrote in study hall to shame.

For Carla Gillis, guitarist and vocalist for the now-defunct Haligonian rockers Plumtree, it was the latter.

“I was 19 or 20 when I wrote the lyrics to ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and in the throes of probably half a dozen crushes at the time,” Carla Gillis said. “There is one person who comes to mind because he was someone I’d liked for many years but, even at that, I think the lyrics came out of a general feeling of liking people but being afraid to act on those feelings.” The name itself was an inside joke among the band members- a friend named Scott Ingram had his name juxtaposed with another acquaintance named Philip Pilgrim. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hulu Do You Love? Network Streaming Service Unveils Premium Details- Should Cable Be Scared?

Hulu has announced its long-expected premium service, Hulu Plus, with a "preview-by-invite" free trial. 

While the service isn't without it's head-scratchers (it still features commercials, for example), the advance word from CNet is that it "freakin' rocks" (their words, not mine.) Entire seasons of currently-running shows are available, with new episodes appearing the day after their initial airdate (another of those head-scratchers.) 

CNet's early review points to what may be the strongest case for a premium Hulu: the ability to use the service on Samsung's internet-ready televisions and Blu-Ray players, Apple's iPhone, iPad, and third generation iPod Touch, and, in the near future, the PlayStation 3; XBox 360 is due in early 2011. (Apple products need to be running iOS4.) 

Hulu's chief competitor looks to be Netflix, which has established a robust streaming library of commercial-free feature films and television programs and, with an already-operational iPad app and a forthcoming iPhone one, ought to be a strong rival.

When considered on the grander scale, though, one gets the impression that each service, in fact, compliments the other. Hulu has the stronger lineup of current shows; Netflix has to wait until seasons are released on DVD, often causing a lag of several months. Netflix has a greater library of feature films, all commercial free; it remains to be seen if Hulu's feature library will continue to have periodic commercial breaks.

The two services, at their most basic levels (each coming in at almost ten bucks), are still markedly cheaper than a cable subscription with comparable features, which becomes very attractive. Wired has more on that.

What do you think? Have you checked out the Hulu preview? Let me know how it goes- and if it's worth the Hamilton. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Death of a Party: One More Record Store Bites the Dust in OK.

As I drove down Air Depot Blvd. in Midwest City yesterday (6/28), I was a little disappointed to discover that the CD Warehouse franchise previously found in a small plaza north of S.E. 15th had been closed and the location available for rent.

CD Warehouse isn't the sort of establishment to wax nostalgic about- it's a chain of new/used CD shops that started popping up in the OKC metro area back in the 1990s, effectively gobbling up the smaller mom and pop shops that couldn't keep up and sopping up the remaining customers left after establishments like Blockbuster Music began collapsing. The emergence of second-hand music stores in this area on the scale that they once seemed to coincide with the time just before the advent of file sharing.

With the shuttering of CD Warehouse, there is, to my knowledge, now a complete lack of a retailer whose primary product is recorded music in the eastern part of the metro. "Big box" retailers Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy (whose music section seems to have contracted in recent months) hold the lion's share of the market, with used multimedia store Vintage Stock, whose music section is dwarfed by its selection of used video games, toys, and DVDs, as the lone holdout for customers seeking anything other than recent releases by acts currently occupying the Billboard singles chart and select catalog releases by established acts.

Much has been made of the death of the record store, whether it be due to the big boxes or online services (both legal and illegal.) There are still record stores in Oklahoma City- a couple of very good ones, at that- but the distance from the eastern suburbs now becomes a legitimate issue, especially for younger listeners. CD Warehouse wasn't independent by any means, and it certainly didn't have the sense of identity that one finds at Size or Guestroom Records, but it was the last nearby location for intrepid listeners in Midwest City, Choctaw, Harrah, and other suburbs east of I-35 to explore bins and take chances on music.

Related:The Tulsa World's piece on "retail volunteerism" (from 2008) illustrates the effect a record store can have on members of the community- what other for-profit establishment can inspire people to volunteer to work?