Is there any good pop music that's not melodramatic? It's hard to be sure. One of the main functions of pop music is to amplify the common, mundane events that every person experiences, to infuse them with meaning and signifigance. Keeping this in mind, it's hard to fault any pop music for melodrama. Besides, it's the execution that matters. Fol Chen's debut, Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made, is end-to-end melodrama and that's fine; so far, they're doing it right. Instead of the kind of melodrama that produces sugar and hooks, Fol Chen appears to opt for storybook.
John Shade almost appears to some kind of concept album, except without the concept part. The feeling comes from the clear presence of "schtick" around Fol Chen: There are no press photos of the band where you can see their faces, their Myspace sports a "Borges-lite" story of the band's origins, and the album bounces between the palatable and the cryptic. Cryptic is fine, but Fol Chen aren't the Knife, and their music doesn't support the aura they appear to be creating. To a degree, appearances inform us of how the music is supposed to be listened to, and Fol Chen has a problem with coherence.
The album's two best songs are the most straightforward. "No Wedding Cake" starts out risky with the lyric "I could never break your heart," but the word "again" is tacked on later for a little dark humor, and the whole track is rescued by smart songwriting and interesting composition. "Cable TV" is cool and simple, but then it fills out the charm by lapsing into an impromptu cover of Janet Jackson's "When I Think of You," in the most natural way such a thing could be done.
The worst are the cryptic "The Longer U Wait" and the drowsy, meandering "You and Your Sister in Jericho." If you heard them one right after the other, it wouldn't make any sense for them to be on the same album. It highlights the choice Fol Chen have to make: Do they want to make sweet, oddball, uncomplicated pop, or do they want deal in removed indulgences?
A steel-crushed collision of two musical vehicles in a grinding, melodic tangle: on one side of Fol Chen’s musical spectrum are songs like the creepy menace of “Th Blvrs”s electro-funk freakout of gear-stripped beats interspersed with eerie, spinesliding vocals and rising synth lines, and on the other side are songs like the unabashed rock ‘n pop of “N Wddng Ck”’s skittering ear candy. And while the song “Cable TV” features lovely guest vocals from Liars’ Angus Andrew, being the dork that I am, I’m more interested in and entertained by the sly Pale Fire reference that is the album’s title.