In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
The unspoken truth of the SXSW Music Conference and Festival—which is set to engulf my former hometown of Austin, Texas in a little more than a month and a half—is that it’s a terrible place for a band to make a first impression. The challenge to make a mark is only exaggerated during any of the innumerable day parties that act as swag-clogged preludes to the nightly showcases of the main festival, where an act competes against free beer and warmed-over tacos in addition to the dozens of other musicians playing at the same time in the same handful of clubs and pop-up venues. It was at one such gathering where I first encountered Fol Chen, then summarily—and somewhat cattily—dismissed their glitchy electro-funk as “Prince, if Prince stopped giving a fuck.”
But even outside the context of strangely cranky-making free booze and Tex-Mex, the best introduction to Fol Chen is not in a live setting. It’s inside headphones, where the band’s synth-pop-on-the-edge-of-the-world vision has more freedom to unfurl and its snappy sense of percussion has a greater chance for impact. The new single “200 Words” is less beat-driven than past standouts like “Cable TV” and “In Ruins,” but it stretches Fol Chen’s basic percussiveness and kitchen-sink instrumentation into a beguiling overture to the group’s forthcoming LP, The False Alarms. For an act that spent much of its career cloaked in mystery, Fol Chen sounds surprisingly inviting at the outset of “200 Words,” before giving itself over the slinky android vocals of Sinosa Loa, who half-raps a narrative with enough foreboding details—empty houses, late-blooming flowers—to tie the song into the fucked-up mythology built by Fol Chen’s first two records, Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made and Part II: The New December. (It has something to do with a language-based virus destroying civilization. You’re better off accepting it as “generic apocalypse” and moving on.) However you see it, a stroll through an electronic landscape alongside Loa makes for a better induction into Fol Chen’s universe than a performance where the band is playing second banana to industry networking and free lunches.