[xrr rating=4.0/5]Oral histories can be notoriously unreliable: they’re entirely at the mercy of its contributors’ sometimes faulty memories, tendencies to whitewash certain events while mythologizing others and petty desires to settle old scores or otherwise twist the knife a bit. Even the best such books – such as I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead and Please Kill Me – contain their fair share of lies, misdirections and exaggerations. In many ways, for anyone who puts a premium on objective history, these books are often the most dubious places to look.

So for whatever historical veracity such books lack, they should at least be entertaining and give the reader a broad impression of its subject. Kaitlin Fontana’s Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records, 1991-2011 does precisely that, and pretty well to boot. Arranged chronologically, the book includes contributions from most of the Canadian label’s major players, interspersed with short sections written by Fontana that crisply keep the narrative moving along. The success or failure of any oral history largely depends on how skillful an interviewer the author is; here, Fontana clearly knows what questions to ask and how to ask them. It’s this approach that allows individual characters and the label’s defining milestones to emerge in their own unique way in the various recollections from everyone from co-founders Bill Baker and Randy Iwata to numerous band members associated with the label.

Though Fresh at Twenty is frequently a celebration of the label – and to be sure, with a pair of owners who built the label out of little more than a youthful (or boozy) whim and a roster that boasts classic indie release from the likes of cub, the New Pornographers and Neko Case, some anniversary-style celebration is in order – Fontana doesn’t censor criticism of Mint, either. Regardless of the book’s generally convivial tone and heaping piles of adulation thrown at Baker and Iwata, it’s not one-sided; in one of the book’s more memorable quotes, Jeff McCloy of New Town Animals says that it “seemed like so much of Mint was a shrugged shoulder.” It’s not exactly a scathing critique – and indeed, a scant amount of that is to be had in the book – but it does at least prevent Fresh at Twenty from feeling like state-sanctioned propaganda.

A few key figures in Mint’s development declined to participate, which is unfortunate and does at times make the book feel somewhat incomplete. The most glaring absence is Case, arguably the biggest indie star the label once had in its stable, and who offers a soppy, very generic statement about her time with Mint (“I have no regrets about my time with Mint, only love…I loved it all”). Fontana shares no blame in this regard, but where the author does slip up is in a general lack of investigation beyond her interviews. Most glaringly, for all the talk about how the label nurtured and expanded the Canadian music scene, when it comes to discussing how Mint albums were critically or commercially received, Fontana’s research is cursory and fails to incorporate a respectable number of publications.

Tucked away on the last page of Fresh at Twenty is a URL that enables the reader to download a playlist of Mint songs. If it’s meant to serve as a validation of the label and its place in indie music, it does the trick and serves as a solid companion to the book itself. Of course, all the usual tour hijinks and inevitable band issues find their way into the Mint saga, but beyond all those stories are heartfelt reminiscences about the label and especially its two founders. History is prone to selective revisionism – oral history even more so – and so while Fresh at Twenty might have the occasional embellishment or misremembered incident, it is nevertheless an engrossing read that wonderfully captures the label’s personality.

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