Walt Mink formed in the late 1980s at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Three kids from the coasts, John Kimbrough (guitar/voice), Candice Belanoff (bass), and Joey Waronker (truly one of the great 90s drummers), smashed together in the middle of the nation and started playing power trio rock. Miss Happiness was their 1992 Caroline Records debut, featuring ten tracks, home studio versions of which were previously featured on their cassette-only releases Listen, Little Man! and The Poll Riders Win Again.

My brother, attending Macalester at the same time, brought home this record in 1992. I can remember at age eleven not being terribly into much of it, with the exception of the layered version of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” partway through the record. That all changed when I gave the record another serious listen towards the end of high school. For whatever reason, the complex drum patterns and guitar lines hit me much more strongly, and I never really looked back. The group’s powerful early 90s power trio jams fit the bill just right.

The frantic opening of “Miss Happiness” seems to signal a punk freakout, but before long, it settles into a mid-tempo indie story of a glowering girl and a wasted summer. “Chowdertown” and “Love You Better” continue the pattern of trying to connect with girls, but there is very little that is gentle on display. The volume, combined with Kimbrough’s sneering vocals (“I’ll never use the L word again”) twist the focus on love into a bitter, almost jaded outlook (allmusic.com rightly compares the band to Jonathan Richman in this respect). “Showers Down” starts to get a little more abstract and features a little more dynamic range than the previous tracks. Shit gets real at track six, though, which is the aforementioned “Pink Moon.” Kimbrough gives Nick Drake’s gentle, inward-focused yet ominous track the Walt Mink treatment, turning Drake’s warning into more of a triumphal announcement. Whereas Drake’s original uses a very minimal arrangement that is almost scarily quiet, Walt Mink layer distorted guitars and a solid bass over Waronker’s sympathetic drumming. “Factory,” the last track, is a five-minute epic, a look at the nostalgic past combined with a questioning look at the present, full of imagery that makes me think, for some reason, of grainy super 8 films of backlot shenanigans amongst friends.

It’s difficult to pin down what Walt Mink is all about, where they fit in. That tried and true method, comparison to other bands, never quite seems to approach the truth of the matter (they don’t really sound like Dinosaur Jr., they don’t really sound like Pearl Jam, they don’t really sound like Pavement, they don’t really sound like Sebadoh, Fugazi, Nirvana, et al.) I suspect that the record industry didn’t really know what to do with them because of this. The songs don’t really have an obvious radio-friendly sound to them; there aren’t many obvious hooks and choruses. It’s almost as if they have the instrumentation and power of Cream, only it’s as if Clapton, Bruce, and Baker all grew up listening to Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Minutemen instead (if that’s not saying too much).

By 1997, after four albums, touring in support of Soul Asylum, Pavement, Mudhoney, and the Lemonheads, and a Sofia Coppola-directed video, the writing was pretty much on the wall.  Walt Mink had slipped through the cracks of an industry that couldn’t quite place their punk-power sound.  The band briefly came together in the summer of 2006 to play two (by all accounts unbelievable) shows at the Triple Rock Club in Minneapolis, shows that were filmed for a pending documentary on the band.

NOTE: Miss Happiness is out of print, but it’s not terribly expensive (about $8 if you can find it at your local record store). If you can’t find it, though, here it is.

— Theodore Harwood

Walt Mink: Miss Happiness (1992)
1. Miss Happiness
2. Chowdertown
3. Love You Better
4. Showers Down
5. Quiet Time
6. Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
7. Smoothing The Ride
8. Croton-Harmon (local)
9. Twinkle and Shine
10. Factory

Rock this down again . . .