By Chris Powers
Despite his grungy image as the long-haired, bass-wielding sideman in Ty Segall’s prolific garage rock collective, Mikal Cronin is a pop guy through and through. Weaving delicate melodies with playful harmonies, Cronin’s solo work is in sharp contrast with Segall’s raucous guitar jams. The San Francisco-based songsmith’s output builds on a strong pedigree of beach-pop nuggets crafted under the sweltering California sun, but doesn’t mull in summery nostalgia. Rather, Cronin’s songs take on an inquisitive and self-reflective disposition. MCII, his sophomore effort — and first for indie powerhouse Merge, cements his reputation as one of indie rock’s most candid and endearing songwriters.
A subtle piano arpeggio begins album opener “Weight” before giving way to a bombastic chorus. Quiet-loud dynamic shifts complement the song’s theme of confronting the uncertainties surrounding the beginning of a new relationship, a topic visited throughout the album. Cronin’s wavering vocals create an air on uneasiness, which culminates in an alleviative outro anchored by a melodic electric guitar.
Lead single “Shout It Out” is perhaps MCII’s catchiest tune — a tough call on an album filled with sun-soaked melodies and bouncy pop arrangements. Cronin’s attempts at self-assurance prove unfruitful, as evidenced in the track’s grand, big-eyed chorus. “Do I shout it out?/ Do I let it go?/ Do I even know what I’m waiting for?,” he wails with refreshing honesty. Though the song’s lyrics suggest that Cronin’s unsure of himself, all sonic evidence points to the contrary. A master of the pop formula, he commands a wall of heavily distorted guitars and rhythmic hand claps, all building towards a sweet resolution. Cronin may not have the whole relationship thing figured out, but he certainly knows how to twist his romantic woes into pristine pop exercises.
MCII’s more nuanced back half displays Cronin’s talent for crafting fully-realized tunes without sacrificing his catchy power-pop tendencies. On “Change,” a thick, sludgy guitar intro segues effortlessly into a jangly 12-string verse, illustrating Cronin’s ability to judge when to stomp on the fuzz pedal and when to pull back the throttle and let his refined melodies dominate the mix. “Don’t Let Me Go” finds Cronin doing just that: eschewing backing instrumentation in favor of a lone acoustic guitar to accompany his tender melody and harmony interplay.
MCII’s never too much, never too little approach paints Cronin as a creative perfectionist with a vast arsenal of pop tools at his disposable. However, where the album succeeds is in its tasteful deployment of said tools. Cronin doesn’t throw everything at the wall to see what sticks; he carefully plays to his strengths as a songwriter and composer to make his product as concise as possible. While Cronin’s lyrical insecurities curiously foil this artistic aplomb, his brazen earnestness is refreshing. MCII is the product of a confident songwriter tackling issues that we all face at one time or another. Sooner or later Cronin will have his ducks in a row, but until then we can selfishly enjoy the spirited pop jams born out of his inner struggles.