Album Review: Mikal Cronin – MCII

[Merge; 2013]

Twenty-seven can be a difficult age. Of course it still safely resides in the roaring twenties of youth, but the horizon of adulthood looms closer and closer. For musicians, the age portends even worse. For Mikal Cronin, 27, this conflict of optimistic innocence versus the angst of aging is more than a convenient trope – on MCII, it’s a dual-edged sword that he brandishes skillfully into a scintillating sophomore record, one stacked with some of the year’s best pop-rock tunes.

Cronin emerges from San Francisco’s psych-rock scene (he frequently backs high school classmate and longtime friend Ty Segall on bass), but he’s sanded down the genre’s frazzled edges for a polished, pop-friendly sound. Though the subject matter is serious, the record is consistently catchy, with Cronin’s vocals (mostly a mystery heretofore, even to his old bandmates) sitting cleanly atop fuzzy guitars, strings, and piano.

The album steps out with “Weight,” featuring a piano and acoustic guitar driven melody that gives way to Cronin’s introspective lyrics. “I’ve been starting over for a long time,” the album begins. “I’m not ready for another day I fail at feeling new.” The song features a few studio twists and turns – a perfectly placed drum fill, an acoustic guitar breakdown – that showcase the pop polishes Cronin’s incorporated since his memorable, more rough-hewn debut. But despite the song’s incessant catchiness and anthemic nature, it’s clearly a Klonopin for the anxiety beneath the surface. It sounds assured, but he’s clearly “not ready,” a phrase he employs nearly a dozen times.

Much of MCII is indebted to the fuzz-pop of the ’90s and Cronin has meticulously mined some of the choicest nuggets. Fans of Sloan and the like will certainly recognize the distorted guitars and neatly stacked harmonies that made the music from this era shine. But even songs as seemingly follow simple schematics, they are not without surprises – after all, this is still a contemporary record featuring Ty Segall. Take the loose swing of “Am I Wrong,” which brings back that great guitar sound, but adds a plinky barroom piano and a ripping Segall guitar solo. It makes for a fun two and a half minutes.

Indeed, if the devil is in the details, Cronin and co. have seemingly covered all their bases – almost too well. “See It My Way” is a bit of a wrong turn on the FM dial towards the ripoff rock that formerly littered the post-grunge landscape. It is but a minor detour and quickly rectified with the steady, stellar “Peace of Mind.” Here the solo comes not from a squelching guitar, but a perfectly placed fiddle. It works exceedingly well and makes a fitting end for the first half of the record.

“Change” energetically jumpstarts the album’s flip side before giving way to the strumming stomp of “I’m Done Running From You.” The reticence of the record’s first half has given way to increased anxiety, before things slow down with the resigned sincerity of “Don’t Let Me Go.” The song features some heartfelt lyrics (“Don’t let me go/ Cause I don’t want to know/ Is it my fault, we couldn’t grow?”), a result of clear intentions to be deliberately, sometimes brutally honest.

“I told myself with this project the main mission statement would be to just be honest — honest musically and lyrically,” he told the San Francisco Weekly. “I’m sick of bands with gimmicks, and sick of music [that’s] trying to lean on a genre too hard.” This ethos is perfectly encapsulated with the album’s closer, “Piano Mantra.” It’s a song that not many 27 year-old psych-rock bassists could write, let alone one featuring a vulnerable piano and distorted guitars. He recapitulates the album’s conflictions, but concludes that the “open arms are giving me hope.” And with Mikal Cronin at the young of age of just 27, fans of power-pop should have much hope indeed.