Marc Bolan understood the creative potential of setting wimpy vocals against decisive rock choogle, but the power pop groups that followed the leader in the ’70s (Milk ‘n’ Cookies, Shoes, 20/20, etc.) and beyond reduced the electric offensive to tightly compressed guitar distortion that, in its gentle little-tiger roar, stayed as pretty as the singers’ fey voices. Not Walt Mink. The trio — formed at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota — pushes the walls of soft and strong so far apart that it’s sometimes hard to believe the audible evidence of what’s going on.
John Kimbrough (son of Murphy Brown actor Charles Kimbrough) manages the feat of singing like he’s about to doze off after inhaling too much helium while playing guitar with a kinetic fervor that would make Jimi Hendrix kiss the sky. Armed with an equally explosive, turn-on-a-dime rhythm section-bassist Candice Belanoff and drummer Joey Waronker (whose sister led that dog and whose father was president of Warner Bros. Records), Walt Mink debuted with Miss Happiness. The album is a marvel of winsome melodies set like precious jewels atop churning walls of intricate rock. In conception, the attack owes more to the fill-every-corner pressure of speed metal than the look-at-us-we’re-cute world of pudding bowl haircuts. A couple of songs coagulate into thick puddles of shapeless gunk, but the best ones soak up several generations of rock style and carry it safely through Walt Mink’s distinctive abyss. The funk-accented “Miss Happiness,” the slabby “Love You Better,” the nothing-of-the-sort “Quiet Time,” the naggy “Smoothing the Ride,” the railroading “Croton-Harmon (Local)” and “Showers Down” are all thrilling results of the band’s original something-for-everyone formulation; a startling cover of Nick Drake’s acoustic wisp “Pink Moon” collates divergent decades and sensibilities into a spectacular artifact.
Bareback Ride doesn’t change anything substantial, but the songs aren’t as strong or appealing and the playing is uninspired, making the album all but redundant. As if he had discharged too much of his initiative on Miss Happiness and not gotten enough back, Kimbrough weaves a simple, busy web of guitar, roaring just as loudly but concentrating his efforts into metallic vignettes rather than functionally stable textures. The radio-attacking “Disappear” is good enough, but the Indian music affectation of “Sunnymede” only adds novelty to a record that is in far greater need of substance. (The three female members of that dog guest on voices and strings.)
After Bareback Ride, Walt Mink signed to Columbia but left without releasing a record; the next stop was Atlantic, where the group — no longer including Waronker, off to play with Beck after guesting with 9-Iron — made El Producto. If not consistently engrossing, the third album is still easily Walt Mink’s best. Stylistic variety is the key to the power trio’s progress: while Kimbrough’s hyperactive guitar swarms like a face full of angry electric bees in “Stood Up,” “Betty” makes smart use of the loud/soft switch, “Me & My Dog” drops the curtain for a slithery raga-lead approach that works this time and “Love in the Dakota” (an inexplicable retelling of Rosemary’s Baby made even more seductive by robust cello) is only one of several folky, or at least acoustic-based, arrangements. Still one of the most imaginative extreme-guitar activists in pop, Kimbrough has likewise expanded his vocal repertoire, adding Beatlesque stylings and a middle register to tether the higher reaches of his eccentric stop-start-hold-rush phrasing. Busy new drummer Orestes Morfín (ex-Bitch Magnet) fits in perfectly, and songwriting that isn’t just a framework for instrumental exertions pushes the best tracks over the top. El Producto is close enough for that cigar.
After making one more studio album, Colossus, Walt Mink broke up in November 1997. Goodnite is a document of their final live show.