I should immediately admit that many listeners -- possibly even a majority of listeners -- will find Death by Chocolate to be an unexceptional, if pleasant little record. And that assumes a liking for (or at least tolerance of) twee, loungy little pop songs. So who's going to flip for Death by Chocolate? Anglophiles, mostly.
Above and beyond the estimable input of Jeremy Butler and John Austin, and indeed the El Records pheremones all over the disc, Death by Chocolate is a showcase for one Angela Faye Tillett, purportedly a British teenager who works as a chambermaid when she's not making music. Angie doesn't do much singing. She mostly speaks her lyrics, spooling off her non-sequitur-laden words in an absolutely archetypal British girl voice. She sounds wan, slightly bored and perhaps a little bit sullen, her accent comfortably middle-class and her delivery almost unnervingly calm.
Where this really works well is in a series of five tracks named for different colours. In each track, Angie reels off a series of items and images the hue conjures, bouncy pop music bubbling behind her. Mustard yellow conjures images of old Volvo estate wagons, orange is the colour of ice lollies and dinghies and Fiat 500s, olive green brings thoughts of radio plays of Morris Minors, and so forth. The details are modest, but selected words bring sharp focus to quintessential Britishisms. You might not know them from first-hand experience, but they're enough to create a realistic mood -- much in the same way that a few distinct elements can be used to "imply" the larger details of a minimalist stage setting.
There's something equally special about "The Land of Chocolate". In this track, Ms. Tillett lists the thoughts, memories and sensory experiences associated with various brand-name chocolate treats. They're all of British origin, though American listeners will recognize Creme Eggs, Kit-Kats and perhaps Flakes. Also included here are Malteasers, Wispa and Galaxy bars, and best of all, Smarties. For all you healthy eaters out there, British Smarties aren't the swee-tarty things Americans know as Smarties. In the UK, Smarties are rather like larger, richer M&Ms, their sweet coating thicker and more flavorful. Smarties are typically sold in cardboard tubes with a plastic stopper on the end. Angie's treatise on them is dead solid perfect, down to the popping noise of the stopper coming off the tube for the first time. She even checks the back of the stopper to see which letter appears there; it's always one of the letters from the word SMARTIES, if I recall correctly, giving rise to all manner of apocryphal mythology among children. Perhaps I'm being overly appreciative of "The Land of Chocolate" -- in part due to the fact that my most recent pilgrimage to the British food shop has kept these products fresh in my mind -- but for my money, the magic is in the details.
Unfortunately, if these pop-cultural details don't hook you, it's doubtful whether the rest of the album will reel you in. A jumble of eccentricity with a tinkly lounge-pop soundtrack, it offers spy-beat instrumentals ("Daddy's Out of Focus"), psychedelic nuggets ("My Friend Jack", from last year's installment of Jetset's Songs for the Jet Set series) and clever oddities. The stereo experiment "The Salvidor (sic) Dali Murder Mystery" puts a different spoken vocal in each channel and cops riffs from the Monkees' "I'm a Believer", while "AB&C" offers an unexpectedly erudite listing of the alphabet. There are also several covers. "The L. S. Bumble Bee", Dudley Moore's psychedelic oddity, fits in well enough. "Who Needs Wings to Fly" (the theme from The Flying Nun) and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" (best known for its appearance in Harold and Maude) give us a chance to hear Angie's singing voice...which is sweeter than her speaking voice might suggest, but not earth-shaking.
So really, Death by Chocolate might not make a big impression on the majority of listeners. Non-Anglophiles, you've been warned. This is a pretty little pop album, and you'll enjoy it, but it'll score the most points with those peculiar types who've postulated the best possible colour for a Triumph Stag, and who take a childish joy in popping the plastic stopper off of a brand new tube of Smarties.