Mikal Cronin’s reputation as one of the leading lights of the current neo-garage-rock craze precedes itself, but you might start rethinking any assumptions about his music and the genre he’s associated with when you hear the solitary piano chords intro’ing “Weight”, the opening number on his latest effort MCII. That’s because, before any expectations for MCII can fully set in, Cronin is already breaking all preconceptions, coming out of the gate with the album’s most relentlessly catchy, fully realized guitar-pop confection on a disc brimming over with ‘em. Sure, there’s an intuitive and spontaneous feel to the song that screams DIY basement rock, plus a scratchy layer of fuzz coating the buzzsaw guitars to boot, but what you really notice about “Weight” is how impeccably composed it is, as Cronin strikes a balance between feedbacky chaos and a developed beginning-middle-end structure adorned with orchestrated touches like bounding piano and swooping strings.
So what Cronin’s up to on MCII isn’t so much spearheading the current garage-rock revival, but rather redefining what the term means altogether. If that tag typically connotes raw, unmediated impulsiveness, it would hardly apply to the pop nuggets that come one after the next on MCII, all boasting meticulous melodies and virtuoso execution. Instead, the most garage-y aspect of Cronin’s sophomore outing is more intangible, not reflected as much in the final product, but in a certain stream-of-consciousness, anything-goes state-of-mind that makes MCII what it is. Here, the scope of Cronin’s offerings impress as much as his performance of them, opening up the category he’s working in, not unlike what his better-known comrade Ty Segall has been doing over the past few years. But whereas Segall changes the game with a prolific creativity that explores and exhausts every artistic possibility out there, Cronin picks his spots more deliberately, investigating a broad range of styles by digging deeper into them to figure out how they complete his musical vision.
Indeed, even the tracks that best fit into a garage tradition never stop at perfecting a dense, exuberant sound, but go further by deftly adding on layer upon layer of instrumentation. While “Shout It Out” might have a classic soft-loud dynamic, Cronin juxtaposes brisk acoustic strumming and meaty riffing in a way that actually draws out what makes each part shine. With an assist from Segall, the loose, ramshackle “Am I Wrong?” thrashes it out with the best of them, as blues-inflected guitar lines and barroom piano romp over thudding bass and bottomed-out drums. But it’s the anthemic “Change” that most breathtakingly twists and turns on you, raging headlong with the crunchiest guitar crunch on the album and Cronin’s most hot-and-bothered vocal performance when he pleads, “Good, God, just a little bit goes a long way”, only to take a cool down lap with a long, panoramic string suite that gracefully releases all the pent-up frustration that’s been building.
Whether Cronin is breaking the boundaries of the genre he works in or redrawing them, you can’t help but be impressed by the way he delves into so many diverse styles, then assimilates them into his own musical profile. Indeed, it’s stunning how he slips so ably and easily on successive tracks from the psychedelic flavor of “See It My Way”, which brings to mind an indie riff on Blur’s “There’s No Other Way”, to the almost languorous Americana-tinged ditty “Peace of Mind”, on which the slight twang in his voice and the front-porch fiddling by Thee Oh Sees contributor K. Dylan Edrich come as naturally to Cronin’s handiwork as a distortion-drenched solo would. And then there’s “Turn Away”, which flashes some flamenco-ish guitar flourishes not so much to accent Cronin’s power-pop, but as the payoff the whole thing is building up to.
But Cronin is never changing the pace or tone just for the heck of it, rather seeking out different ways for him to push himself as an artist, as some of the cross-references on MCII would suggest. So while Cronin has explained that listening to Elliott Smith inspired him to flesh out his songs in a more orchestrated way, that influence, more obviously, finds fullest fruition on singer-songwriter-ish acoustic-based tracks like “Peace of Mind” and “Don’t Let Me Go”. Just him and his guitar on “Don’t Let Me Go”, Cronin necessarily has to let his guard down when his internal monologue vocals have more room to fill, like when his tender voice lifts with the repeated line, “Can’t take this feeling from me”, an appropriate enough sentiment for an instant you want to hold onto when everything happens to be pitch perfect. Even deeper and more soul-searching is the elegiac closer, “Piano Mantra”, which is most reminiscent of the hushed pieces from Big Star’s devastating Third/Sister Lovers. Accompanied by only melancholy piano at the start, Cronin puts himself out there more than ever, as his creaking, wounded vocals ask, “Can you hear me or is it in my mind?,” with a piercing introspection à la Alex Chilton on “Holocaust” or “Kangaroo”. But after the strings come in to bridge his sparse piano chords with the squall of guitar feedback that ends the track, Cronin has gone full circle on “Piano Mantra”, as his ever developing songwriting chops incorporate and transform the tricks of the trade he mastered long ago.
Maybe it’s not entirely reasonable to compare Cronin’s work to that of Smith and Big Star just yet, nor are their approaches and worldview all that similar, especially given that Cronin’s questioning, uncertain lyrics don’t appear to bear—thankfully, hopefully—the self-destructive streak that drove those iconic artists. Yet there is a not insignificant connection to be made between them in the trajectory that MCII hints that Mikal Cronin is headed in, as you can imagine him, like Smith and Chilton before him, refining his craft and honing his musical perspective into something that defines a category all its own.