ALBUM REVIEW: Box of Chocolates – ‘Fearful Symmetry’: early Brooklyn stirrings from Will Oldham, et al

EVERY era of music has those great, lost nuggets which slip out, are adored by the knowing few, lost to the many; are whispered about and traded for ever-inflating sums until they break cover once more. It’s a cycle that can sometimes take a generation, as the actual chaff falls away to leave little beauties shining in the sun of rediscovery. 

Recent years have seen the reappreciation of such lost beauties as the work of Vashti Bunyan, Bill Fay, Linda Perhacs. Now dusting itself down, blinking hard in the new and sudden light of day, the folks over at Drag City today bring you the sole, self-titled album that emanated from New York collective Box of Chocolates.

Full disclosure: I was working in one of Manchester’s premiere record emporia towards the end of the ’90s with at least three colleagues whose knowledge of the US alt was encylopaedic; people who worshipped at the feet of Palace Music, et al, and never once can I recall this album getting a mention nor even seeing a copy.

And why should I mention Palace Music? Because Box of Chocolates features Will Oldham, aka Palace Music, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, in a very early recorded appearance. Personnel spotters will also see the fantastical aliases of yore  – Brute Rake, Mickey Hawaii, Wayne Oliphant – have been peeled back to reveal the involvement of not only Will, but of Aaron Wolfe, early member of prog-jam cultists Phish; Tony Award-winner Michael Chorney, and sound artist and ethnographer Rob Millis.

People who have made their mark in disparate fields, these; so how did the Box of Chocolates album come about? The sleeve notes to the expanded edition, out today, claim: “This is not a vinyl record. It is a story.” 

Around about the time of the first Gulf War, the legend states, Box of Chocolates were “a group of artistically inclined people who haphazardly found themselves living together and who — toward the end of the arrangement — decided to record the experience in the form of songs written whilst at 140 Plymouth Street in Dumbo [Brooklyn].”

An artists’ salon, then; a commune, committed to tape. It could go either way. So, before you unsheath your contactless, what exactly might you be getting?

Well let’s not deflect from the fact that it’s like an artist’s sketchbook. Even with the fleshing out of the new pressing with the addition of two extra, previously unreleased cuts in the shape of “Stigmataphoria” and “The Past Lives of Clarence Thomas,” there’s still five songs here clocking in at under two minutes. Opener “Catatonic” makes a bare 57 seconds on the clock. The full actual minute of “The King” is a campfire fragment. Mere pencil doodles they, you might say; but there is so much raggedy potency running right through the set, so many ideas. “Catatonic” has so many boy-girl harmony avenues, explored so briefly. 

First knockings: it sometimes doesn’t sound that American at all; it’s wiry and scratchy of guitar, suggesting a Peel show band circa ‘84, or maybe a Flying Nun band circa ‘87. Songs like “The Writhe”, the video for which you can watch below, could even be early Go-Betweens

“Emperor’s New Clothes” is a breakneck acoustic rush, comin’ on like a Bleecker Street protest song; that’s until a lead electric joins the party and channels those ragged, sweet harmonies that Damon Krukowski made thousands of hearts swoon with. There’s an odd organ coda spliced at the end.

I find it hard to conceive that “Stigmataphoria” could have been omitted from the original pressing. Shimmering guitar eddies and wanders as a heavily Mitteleuropan voice sample interjects. Will Oldham is near the forefront of the assembled voices. “Tear the crosses down” is the refrain. A really naked, homespun gospel chant explores the fray at the edge of harmony sweetly. And it’s a straight one-two with the churchy heft of follower “Perdido”, a Hispanophone paean, with a similarly delightful plea to the heavens from the chorus line.

It’s all change for the sharp garage beat-rawk of “Good Side”, which seems to be acquainted both with the Pebbles series and the early output of Creation Records, finding time to quote heavily from Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.” (C’mon, did you ever hear what The Farm did to it?

“The Ephant” is a weird little stream-of-conscious whimsy: “I was an elephant / I was  a bug in a rock / I’ll be a bug in a rock, again … I hate the ephant, I’m glad it’s tusk it’s on your shelf … My aim is beautiful, my aim is all that I have.”

“Happiness” is a neat little rock of passionate slowcore, with Will Oldham leading the counterpoint; it ends with swelling drama. It brings us to the Anglophilia of “The Past Lives of Clarence Thomas”: think Monochrome Set, even The Jazz Butcher, kicking back on a four-track for private consumption.

The near-seven minutes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Nightmare” is a twangy- shimmer exercise in dark-glasses desert rock, declamatory and stark. The guys had been listening to The Gun Club before this one. There’s a real practice-room ambience that’s lovely. Bellows and mad cackling tip the song past sanity. Clapboard churches and tumbleweed hove into the mind’s eye.

In summation? Its got holes at the elbows, its shoes are definitely unpolished, it’ll scrounge a beer. Sometimes the influences ring through, but you know there’s a conscious toying with form there. Holed up in a house in Brooklyn, they’re kicking back for fun, and deadly serious about it. 

With new full-colour artwork, revealing liner notes, and the addition particularly of “Stigmataphoria”, it’s hard to see how any serious aficionado of people like Will, Malkmus, Radial Spangle, Neutral Milk Hotel … y’know what I’m saying here – wouldn’t feel a tiny little hole in their chests were this not sat in their vinyl pods.

The vinyl pressing of Box of Chocolates’ Fearful Symmetry will be released by Drag City on July 31st; it’s also available on mp3 and FLAC. To hook yourself one, click on the Drag City shop page, here.

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