Fol Chen is a group shrouded in mystery. Prior to their record’s release, Asthmatic Kitty refused to divulge the names of those involved in the project, and when performing live all members are cloaked in costume and masks of face paint. Even now it seems the only official information available about the group, be it from label sites, Web sites, or press sheets, is a cryptic biography detailing some bizarre dystopian future in which Fol Chen form to battle nemesis John Shade. I can only assume then that full-length debut Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made is their rallying battle cry, or perhaps their first assault. There’s no question that this record will win at least some hearts and minds. With contributions from members of Liars, Let’s Go Sailing, Mazzy Star, and Castanets, Alan Douches, Rafter Roberts, and a long list of other friends, Fol Chen have crafted a charming pastiche of songs grounded in decidedly eccentric pop, spliced and melded with equal parts dense psychedelia and bubbly danceability, tinged with just a dash of unsettling noise.
On Part I elements flip, overlap, and coalesce in a moments notice, at times from song to song, but also within the songs themselves. If unprepared, a listener could end up getting a little exhausted; luckily, the first two tracks serve as good prep work. “The Believers” opens with chopped-up percussion, metered keyboard notes, and drones of synthesized horns that frame its skewed vocal melodies. All build toward the thunderous climax, until the clattering wall of sound gracefully collapses into simple, melancholic guitar strums, bass plucks, and choir-like harmonies that carry the song to its finish. From here, Fol Chen immediately jumps into perhaps the most accessible track on the record, the helplessly infectious “No Wedding Cake.” It may cause a slight stumble after the thick slither of “The Believers,” but within seconds you’ll probably find yourself getting sucked into its seriously absorbing groove. Even with their dancey pop sensibilities cranked up heavily, Fol Chen don’t sacrifice any amount of richness, layering Hall & Oates-like synth, funked-out guitar cuts and clavinet, driving electronic beats, and call-and-response falsetto croons. In a way, these tracks are a microcosm for the whole album, as Fol Chen balances the bitter and the sweet, able to convincingly intertwine or alternate between the two.
Before Fol Chen’s debut record, some critics had accurately noted that Asthmatic Kitty didn’t really have any artists that were comparable to prolific San Diego lo-fi pop/dance/noise genius Rafter Roberts. It’s safe to say that’s no longer true, and we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Rafter (who has served as engineer for both Castanets and Sufjan Stevens) gets a production credit on Part I. Though, I find it pretty hard to believe that he wasn’t involved in the songwriting at all – a good number of songs here certainly smack of his sound. At any rate, Fol Chen seems to have taken note of Rafter’s method of blending styles and, against the odds, experience similar success. From the electro-acoustic sway of “You and Your Sister in Jericho,” to the bizarro-Britney Spears swagger of “Cable TV,” to the gritty, sugary synth-pop of “The Longer U Wait,” it’s obvious they’re in complete control while performing their musical sleight of hand. So, for those who like their pop music both fun and challenging, Fol Chen provides.