Basking in the same warm lo-fi aesthetic as Sebadoh, Chocolate USA specializes in romantic reveries and catchy pop songs, sung in the voice of an innocent but precocious adolescent and backed by an orchestral array of cheap acoustic and toy instruments. Chocolate USA is primarily the vehicle of singer/guitarist/bassist Julian Koster, who formed the group as a high-school student in Tampa, Florida, calling it Miss America until the pageant threatened to sue.
Besides starting a radio show, tape club and annual indie-rock festival, Koster and some friends recorded All Jets Are Gonna Fall Today, which they initially self-released on cassette. Sincerity drives his songwriting and the results are sweetly endearing. Listening to acoustic numbers like “The Shower Song,” “Two Dogs” or “Luniks Furniture” is like eavesdropping on a moody teenager strumming his guitar alone in his bedroom. But Chocolate USA is nothing if not eclectic; although most of the album is acoustic slacker pop, “Skyphilis/Air Raid” kicks off as a pastiche of Tommy Dorsey’s big band sound and glides into an extended free-jazz fantasy. Besides violin, guitar, bass, accordion and drums, the record employs toy piano, cardboard box, french horn, clarinet and turntable scratching; the tracks are interspersed with funny samples from TV, radio and snippets of a tape correspondence between two elderly women.
Following school and the reissue of the first album by Bar/None, Koster moved to Athens, Georgia, and then Queens, New York. Recorded in, among other places, an Athens attic, a Long Island basement and a Hoboken studio, Smoke Machine retains the determinedly unpretentious vibe of the first album, but the songwriting and arrangements are surer and more fully realized. His plaintive vocals — surrounded by a new group of gifted eccentrics (only violinist Liza Wakeman remains from the first LP) playing guitar, bass, concertina, viola, drums and piano-continue to find beauty in sadness and sadness in the most comical situations. It doesn’t matter what the songs are about — bookbags, milk, cherry bombs, cows, “The Boy Who Stuck His Head in the Dryer (And Whirl’d Round n’ Round)” — they come out sounding like the musings of a lonely little boy with a broken heart.