The elusive members of Fol Chen often hide their faces in photographs and videos.
Fol Chen opens its debut album Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made with the song "The Believers," advising us in the chorus, "Don't follow me." To which I respond: Don't worry, Fol Chen. Who's going to try and attempt your instantly-unique blend of dread and whimsy, your quietly-stated intensity? The band tries to hide its faces in photographs and videos, and issues information about itself that are less press releases than gnomic prose poems, yet the group isn't nearly as arch or pretentious as what I just said would seem to imply.
In the song "No Wedding Cake", you can hear what I mean. How can you not develop an immediate fondness for an art-rock experiment that delivers sentiments like, "I could never break your heart," and simply beseeches us to just "listen to this song"? With its perky keyboard riffs and chicken-scratch guitar, "No Wedding Cake" is a charmer. Indeed, charm and a knack for memorable melodies is what lends Fol Chen an energy too many self-consciously hip bands lack.
Over synthesized beats, organ-like sounds (could that be an actual organ?) and fluting vocals, the lines in "The Idiot" sink in with quivering resonance: "Everybody here thinks I'm an idiot/How can that be true/If I'm in love with you?" It's a sweet, winning question, its tenderness bolstered by the firm, springy rhythms. Fol Chen's best vocals are provided by Melissa Thorne, who's already helped turn the song "Cable TV," into an internet-download hit.
"Cable TV" is a simple song about an assignation at a cheap motel with cable TV. That composition is filled with nice little details, such as a line about "getting dizzy from the spritzers and the desert heat." It's sung by Thorne in the kind of barely-inflected murmur that comes off, in music like this, as both brainy and sexy. And what of that unwieldy album title, Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made? Well, members of Fol Chen have made vague remarks that John Shade represents evil, which would seem confirmed by the song called "Please John, You're Killing Me."
But it occurred to me that John Shade is also the name of the poet in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire. I can easily imagine the members of Fol Chen, so fond of obscuring their own identities and motives, being taken with Nabokov's tale of a poet whose work is obsessively annotated by others. Kinda like what happens when music critics try and take apart Fol Chen's music to see what makes it tick. No matter — as Nabokov proved, analyzing admirable but elusive, allusive work only adds another layer of pleasure.