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The Starlight Mints - Built on Squares

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Artist: The Starlight Mints

Album: Built on Squares

Label: PIAS

Review date: May. 27, 2003

Debatably Fresh, but Delightfully Minty

It's not hard to think of Starlight Mints as a sort of quirky-indie-rock everyband. From moment to moment you may well confuse their brand of enthusiastic yet dreamy pop with that of Built to Spill or Pavement or the Flaming Lips, but the tempting similarities are always just fleeting enough to preclude any firm comparison — to the point where, rather than produce a page-long list of artists with similar sounds, you're forced to admit that Starlight Mints are their own goddamn band, and that you like it that way.

Built On Squares, the second release from this Oklahoma quintet, begins and ends with chamber strings, prancing in mischievously to open "Black Cat" and reappearing to sweep out "Jimmy Cricket"; in between they're joined by horns and keyboards in addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums lineup, every song with its own slightly eccentric native sound. Yeah, that's the clatter of bowling pins at the beginning of "Irene."

If all the aforementioned instruments ever appeared together, lush might be the right word to describe the result, but instead of working in concert, all the little elements are spread variously into the mix, each one dealt with such gleeful discrimination that what comes out is an intriguing record that never repeats itself. The strings and horns slither about like chameleons, the trumpet recalling a mariachi march in "Brass Digger" and all the jollity of an Elephant 6 record in "Irene," while cello and violin glide between Piazzolla sophistication and grungy glam at a moment's notice. Vest seems equally pliable; his lyrics tend to the standard side of endearing oddity ("I buttered your bread / I sniffed your wine / And when I was tired / I was tired of lying," or "You're quite horrible / That's why we drove to San Diego"), while his voice channels Bowie and Black Francis as easily as Malkmus or Martsch.

But what stands out is that Starlight Mints handle all these archetypes and legacies just fine while holding their own against them. Built on Squares, only a hint more erudite and refined than 2000's The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of, runs enough of a common thread through its succession of lovely and/or weird songs to retain its own identity. Whether waxing the glamorous Suede vibe of "Goldstar" or the strangely Weezer-meets-Pink Floyd trip of "Zillion Eyes," Vest and company manage to avoid sounding like a summary of anyone else's glory days. Unsurprisingly, the best songs, like "Pages," bear the least resemblance to contemporaries or predecessors, but even the ones that recall other influences err much closer to tribute than imitation.

If they were, in fact, copying the more illustrious figures of indie rock's colorful history, at least Starlight Mints would've chosen exclusively good ones to rip off — and even in that case the sheer magnitude of their reference base would make the distilled focus and endless fascination of their project remarkable in itself. But though Built on Squares strikes chords of recognition more often than usual, it's also simply more interesting than usual; there's always something going on, and for an album to go this far without ever getting dull is anything but standard. Best to blame the likenesses on an increasingly crowded musical genre, and then enjoy Squares for what it is — a catchy record.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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