Music

Mikal Cronin: MCII

Photo: Denee Petracek

On MCII, Mikal Cronin isn't so much spearheading the current garage-rock revival, but rather redefining what the genre means altogether.


Mikal Cronin

MCII

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2013-05-07
UK Release Date: 2013-05-13
Amazon
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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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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