Chocolate U.S.A.

Smoke Machine

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Smoke Machine is the second and final album from Chocolate USA, a kind of satellite, proto-Elephant 6 band (led by pop savant Julian Kostner) that comes on like the sloppily perfect project handed in by the dumb, brilliant kid in art class who tosses off skewered masterpiece after skewered masterpiece almost in spite of himself. And like that art project, Smoke Machine is a mess, full of loose musical threads and lighthearted goofing off, but it's also an inspired mess that is packed full of ideas and inspiration. The album is as much a product of wandering attention spans as it is a result of broad imagination, or, most likely, the band's attention strayed because it had so many ideas that it wanted to pursue. The manner of recording -- on the run between various bedrooms and studios in Tampa, Athens, Hoboken, and Belleville, NJ -- might have something to do with the splayed creativity of the album, but it could not have been accomplished without a vision, and Chocolate USA seems to see in bright, bold patterns. Smoke Machine is presumably a concept album of sorts -- not one that reveals its logic readily, but one can assume it springs out of childhood experiences and perspectives as evidenced by the fun-loving, cartoonish angst that permeates the songs ("The Boy Who Stuck His Head in a Dryer" contains the depressed motif "there is no Santa Claus"). If Nick Drake had been less introspective and more well-adjusted with a propensity for joyous, off-the-cuff pop ditties that stretch the barriers of the form, he might have ended up as part of Chocolate USA. While every melody and song is catchy as hell, and although Kostner's vocals are tender, this is pop music at its most exploratory without aspiring to (yet not sacrificing) accessibility. The whole of it is unselfconscious brilliance.

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