On their debut release, Norman, Oklahoma’s Starlight Mints create offbeat pop tunes that are as strange as they are catchy. Incorporating strings in a decidedly unpretentious manner, the Mints’ approach to rock lies somewhere between the mild psychedelia of the Beatles and the utter psychosis of the Pixies. Singer Allan Vest even sounds like Pixies leader Black Francis, albeit crossed with the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano.
The voice is not the only thing Vest and the former Pixie have in common. Like Black Francis at his peak, Allan Vest writes great pop hooks and cryptic lyrics that are simultaneously unemotional and engaging. In the lazy, lilting “Bandit” he sings, “Press the birdie switch / Coo-coo.” The track also shows off Vest’s knack for turning familiar phrases inside out, as in the opening lines, “Take a wish from the well / Take a tip from a bandit / Let the band play again.”
Unlike so many other groups obsessed with the pure pop of old, the Starlight Mints weave their influences into something remarkably original. They are strong songwriters and, judging from their ability to incorporate familiar sounds in new ways, attentive music listeners who can hear a sound outside its original context. That is no small achievement.
In “Blinded by You,” for example, they incorporate the tearful keyboards of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” but intersperse them with angry bursts of guitar and wistful strings. Instead of creating an atmosphere of paranoia and sorrow, as Bowie did, the Starlight Mints use the same sound to evoke dreamy romantic longing. Similarly, Vest and company recycle a guitar riff from the Pixies’ “Dead” in the intro of “Sir Prize.” Whereas the frenzied lick was the culmination of noisy energy in the Pixies’ song, the Starlight Mints use it as a launching point for a much more mellow and melodic tune.
Probably the biggest treat on The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of, however, is “Sugar Blaster.” The song starts out with a big ‘60s-style drumbeat much like the intro to the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection,” then launches into a goofy call of “Who’s the master, my sugar blaster?” The song contains just about everything that is fun about pop music, including surfish guitar, handclaps, tambourines, and a “Ba-ba-da-da-da” refrain.
Not all the songs on The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of are as engaging as these, but they come darn close. Hopefully, the Starlight Mints will be making post-modern pop of this caliber for years to come.