“Fresh At Twenty” sorely lacking in depth and focus

book-cover-fresh-at-twentyDespite the in-depth detail and history compiled by Kaitlin Fontana in her new book for ECW Press, Fresh At Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records 1991-2011, it’s the omissions that stand out. Fontana gets very thorough interviews with label founders Bill Baker and Randy Iwata, along with Grant Lawrence, and a lot of Mint’s early acts.

However, it’s very early in the book that it becomes apparent the reader’s not going to get quite what’s expected. While cub is covered in-depth, they are essentially the only “big” Mint act to have most of its members speak on the record – or, honestly, at all. It’s in the third chapter, dedicated to the Canadian cuddlecore trio, that a statement from Neko Case appears, regarding her time with Mint. She declined to be interviewed directly for the book, as did pop-punk act Gob.

Also missing: Dan Bejar, half of the Gay, and Vancougar. It all combines to make the story of Mint Records slightly interesting, but not terribly compelling. It’s tempting to look at the cover of Fresh At Twenty and compare it to Our Noise, the book about Merge Records that came out a couple of years ago. There’s quite a bit the two have in common, right down to the font on the cover. Both books are the oral histories of small, beloved, independent record labels that started up to document what was happening around them (be it Vancouver or Chapel Hill), and ended up with a modicum of success that surprised those involved.

neko-caseHowever, when one compares the two books, Fresh At Twenty pales. The chapter intros are short, and do little to connect each segment of the label’s history. Whereas Merge had the story of Superchunk to tie everything together – in essence giving Our Noise a cohesive, comprehensive narrative thread that ran throughout the book – the history of Mint lacks that one voice to tie everything together. Actually, they have that voice in Neko Case, but as she declined to speak with Fontana, the whole book has to be cobbled together with other people talking about the label’s biggest name.

Look at it this way: Superchunk may have had the label’s owners in the band, but that still lent Our Noise the story of label owners counterbalanced with a tenured act who’d been there for the label’s duration, allowing for an inner and outer view of how the operation worked. Fresh At Twenty had the perfect foil to Baker and Iwata in Case, as she’d been there as a member of cub, then her band Maow, solo success, and finally as part of the New Pornographers. Lacking her to present a contrasting voice, the book is poorly organized by band, rather than by era, leading to a lot of jumping around.

It’s this sense of disorganization and an underlying lack of depth in the analysis that lends a sense of unease that one gets as they read through Fresh At Twenty. For instance, Carolyn Mark was interviewed, and appears in the book for a few moments, but it’s the constant mention of absent star Neko Case that makes one wonder why an artists like Mark – who’s released half a dozen albums on Mint – is pushed to the periphery. All of this adds up to a remarkably unsatisfying read, appealing only to those looking for a glimpse at the ’90s Canadian music scene, or heavy-duty fans of the label. Those looking for a comprehensive history of the label, or anything on its shining star will be sorely disappointed.

You can read the book’s first chapter, “To Have and Have Not,” right here.