[11 July 2002]
Death by Chocolate is quite possibly the sweetest band in the whole world.
Wait! Don’t write that last sentence off as a wholly rotten pun just yet. The fact of the matter is, Death by Chocolate’s new album, Zap the World, really seems to be the cutest, most cloying thing to come out of the music scene since Imperial Teen’s Seasick (1996). There’s not one ounce of misanthropy, loathing or self-doubt to be found on this album. It’s just not what Death by Chocolate is about. It’s like Debbie Reynolds renounced at an early age the few vices human nature gave her, then signed up to lead Peter, Paul and Mary in a more pearly-toothed direction than either institution could have achieved on its own.
It’s cute, to be sure. But it’s not cute like cuddly-pink-teddy-bear cute. It’s more like cute in the way a vintage Brady Bunch lunchbox today is cute, or like watching videos of your parents getting “wild” at a sock hop is cute. The question here is, is anyone today really ready for a band that’s more dimple-cheeked than any conceivable pre-fab teen band, past or present, could ever hope to be?
Led by English teenager/singer/songwriter Angela Faye Tillet, Death by Chocolate combines innocent grade-school poetic meanderings, a lyrical textbook of overlooked 1960s English culture, and swanky Austin-Powers-style lounge music to create what sounds like the soundtrack to a period film made years after the fact. However, it doesn’t so much poke fun at the era of mods and paisley as poke it in the ribs and say, “Eh, jolly good time, the 1960s, wot wot?” “Day Out”, the first real “song” of the album—more on that later—starts off with a plinking keyboard riff before Tillet’s perfectly tender Brit accent comes in whispering and modal “doo-doo-doohs” play in the background. “While I’m Still Young” is an obscure cover from the soundtrack of the somewhat-cultish ‘60s English hep-girl film Smashing Time. “El Graphic” could easily be found on a film score of its own, a sprawling, feel-good instrumental punctuated by male vocals “bah-bah-bah-ing” in signature ‘60s fashion. “Artplay”, another extended instrumental, goes on in jazz-like fashion with shimmering cymbals and psychedelic guitars humming and skittering over the top. And the title track, “Zap the World”, covers a song by Sid and Marty Kroft’s infamous Witchiepoo, a character from the H.R. Pufnstuf children’s television series. (As an aside, it is strongly suggested the two versions be compared for maximum effect.)
And well, that pretty much wraps up what could be considered the actual “songs” on Zap the World.
Sorry to disappoint anyone who still thought we were still talking about a conventional album here. Most of Zap the World is made up of observant little interludes and sublimely cranial, seemingly spontaneous poetry.
The album begins, for instance, with a faux-commercial for Vox brand wah-wah guitar pedals (“Vox Wah Wah”), where Death by Chocolate demonstrates the virtues of this “new” technology (“You can even make your guitar sound like a sitar”) and takes the opportunity to drop the names of “contemporary” bands like the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Strawberry Alarm Clock. On “Bibi Gin”, Tillet recites her shopping list (“Orange juice / Dozen eggs / Four green baubles / Dye (black) / etc.”) for two minutes over the riffing of her bandmates. “A B & C Part Two” is a reprise of—you guessed it—“A B & C” from their self-titled debut, wherein Tillet free-associates the letters of the alphabet, A through Z and almost all the way through again (“D is for Dilemma, a choice between two or more unwelcome alternatives / I is for ‘I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’, a hilarious sixties film about the dangers of marijuana starring Peter Sellers”). And every third track or so, Tillet plainly states to the listener one of her favorite things, ranging from cereal to clothing.
If Salvador Dali and the above-mentioned H.R. Pufnstuf crew were to stage a poetry reading, Death by Chocolate would be the result. The album’s great to listen to, and there’s scads of potential lying in wait for the band. But despite the band’s supremely unique bent and experimental arch, the product’s too silly to be considered avant garde, even by ‘60s standards. On the other hand, it’s too highbrow to be considered pop, even by modern rock standards (read Radiohead, Elbow, etc.). It’s almost the Death by Chocolate paradox: can a band be so completely and utterly original that they alienate their listener, not to the point of dislike, but to the point of indifference? This one’s got to be saved for mindless car trips or at-home busy work. Zap the World is a perfect album for a quick sucrose rush, but you have to watch out—the sweetness can be overwhelming.