The term elusive applies to many aspects of the group Fol Chen, a good example being their guarded, superhero identities. Besides the fact that their computery dance rock laughs in the face of genre labeling, their minimal press efforts leave you either utterly dumb-founded or pleasantly intrigued. Photographs and band pics always include blocked-out faces, and their bio is a whimsical adventure tale with no personal information. Odd at first, the story of the band’s fabled formation and subsequent quest to conquer one John Shade ends up coming together quite nicely on their debut Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made.
The music itself is alternately catchy and dark, following a typical story arc with moments high and low, jubilant and brooding. Opener “The Believers” is a somber, robotic march that also introduces the band’s lighter side with playful electronic hums and noises, festive jingle bells, and soft string orchestration; this despite the weepy horns and foreboding cries of “Don’t follow me.” In the face of such an introduction, the second track “No Wedding Cake” is alarmingly cute and jumpy, with jittering guitar licks folded into a dancey love song. Twinkling bells and airy male/female vocals radiate hope through questionably positive lyrical content, as the song skips between likenesses to both Prince and the Talking Heads.
Pacing and tempo factor largely into the album as a whole, where moods that suggest battle and perseverance can easily shift into peppy celebrations of the everyday. One of Fol Chen’s strongest talents is that through any style of song, the tracks stretch and grow with the constant addition of samples and layered embellishments (harp, sitar, dark tubas, even top-40’s vocal inflections), so that any initial attempt at categorization is scrambled. The hilarious “Cable TV” is a cheeky look at modern dating where handclaps drive a mish-mash of stop-motion awkwardness and what sounds like a choir of children’s toys, ending with a nod to Janet Jackson and again, Prince.
After such a jaunt the darker, almost industrial numbers are all the more resonant, and it’s these that seem to drive the John Shade narrative. Seemingly the force of evil in our humble character’s world, and actually the fictional poet of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, he may represent Fol Chen’s attempt to weave a tale. Referencing a novel that’s actually a poem that’s actually a series of incredibly detailed sidebars is cryptic to be sure, but whatever the case may be, the result is a disc whose intricate songs fuel both cerebral readings and trips to the dance floor. Who exactly is Fol Chen? The world may never know. But it will certainly enjoy the journey.