Mikal Cronin’s self-titled debut from 2011 was all about endings: the end of college, the end of a serious relationship, and the end of his time in Los Angeles, where he grew up. So it’s no surprise that his sophomore release MCII—and first disc for Merge Records—is all about new beginnings.
New job! After a move to San Francisco, Cronin toured to support his debut album and also joined the band of old pal Ty Segall (with whom he had been playing in bands for close to a decade), eventually touring the U.S. and much of Europe.
New complexity! Cronin became enamored with a beat-up piano, which led to an expansion of his songwriting. “I wrote a lot on the piano this time,” Cronin says. “I like writing on piano because it breaks you out of the norms of writing on guitar. I read an interview with David Bowie where in the Ziggy Stardust years he started writing almost exclusively on piano, and it opened up a whole bunch of different worlds.” Listening carefully to Elliott Smith’s albums as well as a recent disc by British folkie Bill Fay further strengthened his resolve to make the new songs “bigger, more powerful, with more instrumentation, more well thought out.”
New sounds! On tracks like “Weight” and “Am I Wrong,” Cronin adds neo-honky-tonk piano to his usual wild acoustic strumming and fuzz-pedal freak-outery. With “Piano Mantra,” he offers a full-blown ivory-driven ballad. “People think of me as a garage rocker, but I like the idea of taking a risk and putting a piano ballad on there,” Cronin says. Elsewhere, K. Dylan Edrich (ex-The Mallard) applies viola and violin to several tracks, pushing “Peace of Mind” into high lonesome territory and adding a keening edge to “Change.” Other guests on the album include Charles Moothart (drums on “Change” and “Turn Away”), Ty Segall (guitar solos on “Am I Wrong” and “I’m Done Running from You”), and Petey Dammit (slide guitar on “Peace of Mind”).
New dilemmas! “Since the record came out, my life has changed quite a bit,” Cronin says. “I was presented with a whole new slew of problems and situations that I was trying to work through.” “Am I Wrong” and “Shout It Out” dissect his fears over a new relationship, while “I’m Done Running from You” and “Weight” (hell, most of the record) find him freaking out about what it means to grow up in the 21st century. Oftentimes, he’s arguing with himself about what he wants and needs. “If there’s a theme running through this record, it’s contradiction,” he says. “The songs are all dialogues with myself.”
New album! Like the best artists, Cronin turns his inner turmoil into effervescent pop on MCII. “Shout It Out” splits the difference between the jingle-jangle guitars and pretty harmonies of The La’s and the caterwauling catharsis of Neutral Milk Hotel. “See It My Way” delivers Blur-like stomp, while “I’m Done Running From You” channels the roughshod uncertainty of Green Mind-era Dinosaur Jr.
Recorded in late 2012 by Eric Bauer at Bauer Mansion in San Francisco (except for “Don’t Let Me Go” which was recorded by Cronin at home), MCII is all Mikal. With the few exceptions noted earlier, he played all of the instruments, overdubbing himself. “It all makes total sense to me, but when I step back, it sounds kind of schizophrenic,” Cronin says. “Hopefully it all sounds enough like me to make sense.” — Dan Strachota, Oakland, CA