Maybe it’s the crash of bowling pins that opens “Irene,” or the frenzied interplay between cello, guitar and Atari-sounding keyboard of “Buena Vista,” but I can’t shake the feeling of absurdity that lingers around the Starlight Mints’ second album, Built on Squares. That being said, there is definitely substance (and possibly reason) beneath this whirligig of a pop album. Following the critical recognition of their debut album, The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of, released by Philips Media in 2000, the Starlight Mints have further explored their brand of complex pop-song structures, fetching melodies and obscure lyrics to create another solid, smart record.
Opener “Black Cat” is a string-driven romp that introduces the listener to some key Starlight Mints’ elements: playfulness (sounds like the vocals are rising from a gramophone), vague lyrics (“switchblade stuck in the moon / is that the little girl inside of you?”), and multi-instrumental layers. Singer Alan Vest’s nasally vocals bring to mind Mutations-era Beck and Frank Black, while the playfully-strange song constructions trigger comparisons to the weirdness of Pavement, the Magnetic Fields and the Flaming Lips (or for that much, I’ll also add They Might Be Giants).
To establish some context (and throw more band names into the mix): the Starlight Mints have landed gigs opening for multi-layered alt-popster’s the Polyphonic Spree and the Flaming Lips (like the Lips, the Mints hail from Norman, Okla.), as well as the loveable space-cowboys Grandaddy. Vest cites “strange cartoon music,” Brian Wilson, and Ray Davies as influences (“Jack in the Squares” gives a nod to Davies in its mid-song “All Day and All of the Night” riff).
Embracing this mix of sources, the Starlight Mints successfully merge flippancy and seriousness to produce a fresh batch of songs, which (like Brian Wilson’s) reveal more with each sitting. Standouts “Pages” and “Brass Digger” charm the listener with their delicate, controlled release and withdraw of instruments. This impressive orchestration and production holds true throughout Built on Squares and is telling of the subtlety and skill of Vest and the other Mints, Andy and Marian Nunez.
The funky “Irene” is propelled by drums, trumpet calls and chomping piano and accentuated by the skuzzy guitar licks and mid-song breakdown of acoustic guitar and hand-clapping. Another great moment on the album occurs when the Starlight Mints’ Oklahoma heritage manifests itself in the ominous, wild-west treatment of “Jimmy Cricket.” This well placed track concludes the album with its apocalyptic-tremolo, reverb-heavy guitar lines and romping cello.
OK. Built on Squares is definitely orchestral pop. But, unlike others in the genre who may opt for lazy, lotus-leaf contentment, the Starlight Mints challenge the listener with their unexpected musical turns, clever, controlled craftsmanship, and striking melodies.