What Becomes a Legend Most?

The Return of Walt Mink

Who's playing Monday? Walt Mink? Didn't they break up? Well, no, but you and the rest of the Twin Cities would be forgiven for thinking so. Fact is, our towns' former experts on speed/noise/jazz/ core/psychedelic pop are alive and kicking--though the one-time Macalester College trio did make their last record over three years ago before vanishing at the height of local fame.

"Isn't that the way to do it?" asks guitarist John Kimbrough facetiously over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "Sell out the Mainroom once, and then leave?"

The trouble began after the band signed to Columbia and then wanted to move back to the opposite coasts where they grew up--New York for Kimbrough and bassist Candace Belanoff; L.A. for drummer Joey Waronker. "It was at a moment when we thought--thought being the operative word--that we had the bread to be able to do that when the Columbia deal went through," says Kimbrough. But keeping a bi-coastal band together was not as easy as it seemed. Kimbrough soon began writing a new album, and in the interim Waronker played drums on tour with then-unknown L.A. trickster Beck. The rest is history: Beck blew up big, Columbia kept pushing back the Mink album, band frustration continued to build, and Waronker opted to exit.

Kimbrough and Belanoff spent much of '94 seeking a new drummer--Orestes Morfín, formerly of indie noisemakers Bitch Magnet--and completing a test tour. But by then, their A&R rep left their label, their manager split, and Columbia cancelled their studio plans. "We were, like, incredibly miserable at that point," Kimbrough says. "Columbia was a really awful place to be, and we knew it. They're like a big music meat grinder that just cranks out a lot of mass-market crapola. Thank God we're not there anymore."

Walt Mink moved to a more pro-Mink environment at Atlantic Records last year, when early Mink supporter Janet Billig was VP and where their publicist is an old friend who worked with their first two indie discs. Which is great news, since Walt Mink's at-long-last third album (the cynically dubbed El Producto) is probably Kimbrough's finest hour yet, and it deserves a wide audience. His signature Hendrix/T.Rex/ prog-rock guitar acrobatics, sub-chipmunk tenor and heart-on-sleeve sincerity are there, as always. But since Miss Happiness and Bareback Ride, the band has trimmed the fat from their material. "Overgrown" is a perfect rollercoaster single in classic Mink tradition. "Little Sister"--not the Elvis classic, but a plaintive Kimbrough original referring to his mother's miscarriage when he was a child--could follow suit. Overall, the record represents a high point for the band in terms of studio craft.

"There's definitely so much more stuff going on this record than in the past," says Kimbrough enthusiastically. "Not because we didn't want to do that fancy studio stuff in the past, but because we didn't have the time and resources." To wit: "Everything Worthwhile," recognizable from an early demo, shows up here with immaculate yet subtle orchestration, the mix grounded by backwards piano tracks. "Stood Up" segues into a crossfaded sequence of Beach Boys mellotron and distorted drums. The three acoustic cuts are Kimbrough's most gorgeous yet, and "Me & My Dog" is the thunderous revival of a song from 9-Iron, the old Kimbrough-Waronker lo-fi project. (For various legal reasons, a 9-Iron cassette was recently reissued by the local Generator label under the band name Dumb Angel.)

Walt's drummer trade may have something to do with El Producto's leaner/meaner version. "Orestes's a basher," Kimbrough laughs. "He's a much more physical drummer than Joey. He uses bigger drums and he uses more of them. He's a nut. Go listen to Bitch Magnet records."

Back in the day when Walt Mink was fixin' to take over town, you probably either had your nose in the air over their arty, private-school geekiness, or you were a fascinated kid dying to leap in the pit. Or you were like me, a little of both. Three years later, Walt Mink is back--better, in my book, for their resilience and refinement. "We're really excited," says Kimbrough of their homecoming gig. "We might be rusty, though. Tell everyone to yell at us if we are." CP

Walt Mink performs at the Choice Rocks Minnesota benefit at First Avenue on Monday; see A List for details, p. 22.

 
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