The Starlight Mints
have been labeled "orchestral pop," "chamber pop," "baroque pop" and
"prog-pop." The musicians themselves favor "bubblegum psych." But
none of these tags quite does them justice -- testament to complex
musical pastiches that refuse to be easily pigeonholed.
"They're all just
labels," guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Allan Vest says.
"What else are you going to call it? I really don't know. I suppose
I just call it 'pop music.'"
On the group's
new album, "Drowaton," I call it "inspired."
by a love for the AM pop of the early '70s and "Sgt. Pepper's"-era
concept albums such as the Zombi es' "Odessey and Oracle" and the
Pretty Things' "S.F. Sorrow," Vest and the husband-and-wife team of
drummer Andy Nunez and keyboardist Marian Love first came together
in Norman, Okla., in the mid-'90s. The group showed plenty of
promise on its first two albums, "The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of"
(2000) and "Built on Squares" (2003), but the septet suffered from a
revolving door of other players and musicians who didn't share the
same level of commitment.
"It's hard to
talk about it truly with the threat of hurting people's feelings,
but we had a pretty crazy band at one point," Vest says. "One of the
problems was that we practiced non-stop and smoked a lot of pot
non-stop, too. There were a few odd relationships that contributed
to it as well, and we kind of broke up at one point.
"I've been on
that threshold where I had to wonder if I wanted to keep doing this.
I had an ex-girlfriend say, 'I'm going to law school; you either
start going to school so we can get married or you can keep doing
what you're doing and it's over.' We [the band] were broken up when
Andy and Marian went on their honeymoon, but when they got back, I
told Andy, 'We've worked so hard on these songs. While you were
gone, I decided I'm going to keep doing this. Are you in?'"
regrouped with bassist Javier Gonzales, augmenting their sound with
extra horn and strings players as needed, and spending months in the
studio with producer Trent Bell. The result was their most seductive
set of tunes yet, carefully sequenced and segued to form a tapestry
of impressionistic lyrics set amid well-crafted arrangements
decorated with church bells, piano, violin, cello, percussion,
synthesizer and sound effects.
"We always try
to accomplish the same things when we're doing a record; it's just a
matter of song selection," Vest says. "We spend quite a bit of time
just picking what songs and ideas to work with, but at this point,
it's been so long and we've worked so hard on it, I don't even
remember having a specific vision! It was just more or less, 'OK,
this song is good, and this song; we know those are going to be on
it. What other songs will work around that?'"
the way all of the tracks link together to form a surreal dreamscape
-- a clue provided by the album's title.
"We had some
really lousy names for this record, but there was a song that we
were calling 'Sleep,' and 'Drowaton' seemed like a word to replace
that word because 'Sleep' is just such a boring name," Vest says.
"It all just kind of fell into place after that. But as far as what
the word means ... I kind of promised not to give away the puzzle.
The word is a puzzle in itself; look at it for a while and you'll
figure it out."
As for the
baroque nature of the music, while some listeners accuse the band of
just cramming as many instruments as possible into every song, Vest
maintains the orchestral flourishes are always key elements of the
song instead of mere decorations.
"I like to
arrange the songs as we go, so that if I was working on a song like
'Seventeen Devils,' writing it on guitar, I heard that string intro
part when the drums kick in maybe 30 seconds after I had the initial
idea, and it all kind of started there. I'm hearing the songs with
everything in mind. I'm kind of more into the music, and the lyrics
just kind of happen. You have to have something to sing, right? One
day, I hope to be able to make music that doesn't have lyrics at
It's easy to
imagine the Starlight Mints morphing into Hollywood film scorers,
but it would be a loss: Vest's voice evokes a cross between
Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, and
the odd lyrics he characterizes as an afterthought are actually a
big part of the band's appeal. What the heck does he mean when he
sings, "It's a motor death as far as I can see / A diet of worms
on a submarine" in "Pearls (Submarine #2)"? Beats me, but
coupled with one of the album's many great hooks, it's hard to
resist singing along.
Trading its old
moniker of "Queer as Folk" in favor of the new and snazzier "Alt Q
Festival," Chicago musician Scott Free's annual celebration of "the
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered experience through music
and performance" takes place at the Old Town School of Folk Music,
4544 N. Lincoln, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday.
roster of performers includes blues, gospel, soul and folk treasure
Toshi Reagon, the daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice
Reagon and a recording artist signed to Ani DiFranco's label; Boston
singer-songwriter Erin McKeown; the Prince Myshkins, named for the
main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot and composed
of vocalist and accordion player Rick Burkhardt and
guitarist-vocalist Andy Gricevich; singer Me Kole Wells, the founder
of Thought of a Woman Productions, and Virginia singer-songwriter
Of course, Free
himself will be on hand, still riding high on the release of his
first album in five years, "They Call Me Mr. Free," which finds the
musician and activist in fine political/satirical form, taking on
targets ranging from the record industry to police brutality and the
death penalty to anti-gay violence in the schools.
Tickets for Alt
Q are $21-$25 through www.ticketweb.com or at the Old Town
box office. A portion of the proceeds benefit Equality Illinois. For
more information: scottfree.net/altqfestival.html or call