Hollie and Keith Kenniff, the husband and wife team of Mint Julep, have been hard at work individually over the last few years. Hollie’s solo album, The Gathering Dawn, was released last year, and Keith has been busy with his two side projects, Helios and Goldmund. The work Hollie and Keith do individually usually veers toward more ambient, experimental styles, but Mint Julep has always been more of an accessible synthpop act. So it’s no surprise that Stray Fantasies, their first album since 2016’s Broken Devotion, is a full-fledged return to the retro-leaning, low-key indie dance rhythms of their previous work.
While Stray Fantasies stands in stark contrast to Hollie and Keith’s solo projects, it’s by no means less substantial than those more experimental albums. The pop-oriented structure may be more of a crowd-pleaser, but it’s executed exquisitely and without a trace of shameless nostalgia. While there are definite nods to 1980s standard-bearers like New Order and Erasure, it’s easier to see them as kindred spirits to current artists like the Drums or the Pains of Being Pure at Heart: scooping up influences of the past while remaining unique and deeply relevant.
Stray Fantasies sees a band working within an easily identifiable synthpop structure but bouncing around comfortably within the genre with songs that all have a unique stamp. First single “Blinded” sets up the album with pulsing synths and a simple, driving beat enveloping Hollie’s vocal melodies. The title track veers back and forth between simple, low-key verses and booming, rousing chorus sections. “Unite” works against a distorted, almost industrial-style synth bed before all sorts of hooks and melodies are plucked out of the air. It’s a particularly bracing style that manages to combine edginess with a pop sensibility.
The sort of pop/punk duality of Mint Julep’s music is inevitable, as Keith explains in the album’s press materials: “Hollie grew up listening to a lot of industrial music, and we both listened to a lot of punk. But also, growing up a lot in the late 1970s and 1980s, we both have a lot of pop music from that time in our blood.” Songs like “Escape” and “Vakaras” go a long way in mining that conflation of influences – the stark rhythms and distorted vocal tracks give the songs an air of mystery and aloofness among the dance beats.
The album layers so many instruments into the mix, it’s hard to believe that this is a duo. Yuuki Matthews of the Shins engineered the album masterfully. But the sonic effect is rich and vast and never seems overstuffed or fussy. The multi-tracked results can often be quite stunning, especially when sudden cascades of instrumentation join Hollie’s hazy, dreamy vocals.
In the closing track, “Iteration”, staccato keyboards team up with chiming, Johnny Marr-style guitars, and as the musical intensity builds in the chorus, the vocals threaten to get lost in the mix, but they slice through the cacophony. It’s a beautiful noise, and it sounds like music you’ve heard before, maybe in a dream. But Mint Julep has brought their considerable talents and influences to the table with a new album that sounds warm and unique, with beats and melodies that will stick with the listener long after it’s all over.