In 2006, Blender.com listed "The 50 Worst Things to Happen to Music," and number 50 was the Beatles' seminal album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sacrilege? Yes, and that's part of the point. Many people maintain that it's one of the best albums ever. Others insist that its painstaking artistry and inclusive approach led other performers to devalue simplicity and spontaneity in rock 'n' roll (therefore ruining it).
Is this a roundabout way of implying that Fol Chen's Part II: The New December is its very own Sgt. Pepper, a magnum opus it will never live up to? Well, yes and no. The crafty collective that is Fol Chen has fashioned a clever, ambitious album with a wee touch of majesty. Lots of work clearly went into this project and it shows. December is a blur of seemingly disparate styles and elements. Yet Fol Chen's unassuming knack for tunefulness, drollness, and restraint make this set enchanting instead of a pretentious chore. Take the fractured, slice-and-dice of "Adeline," which could be Everything But the Girl (winsome, urbane pop) having a friendly argument with Laika (creepy, earthy electronica). "Your Curtain Call" has diaphanous boy-girl harmonies that manage to be soothing yet unsettling. The sparse, folk-like "The Holes" could almost be one of the idyllic tracks on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, were it not for the plaintive plunking of what sounds like an African kora (lute).
Part II culminates with the title track, which recalls the mini-symphonies of Van Dyke Parks: Vocals almost at a whisper, the high whine of a pedal steel guitar evoking windswept streets, an odd twang (guitar? harpsichord?) as a counter-melody, and an elegant baroque-ish flute. What's it all mean? Ya got me. But The New December is an alluring, pleasantly perplexing listen. (Asthmatic Kitty)