In the wide sonic gap between his face-scrunching power chords and delicate harmonies, Mikal Cronin has a lot of room for creative freedom. The Los Angeles native turned San Francisco resident is coming off a strong (albeit underrated) 2011 debut solo album as well as significant credits playing bass alongside garage rocker Ty Segall. However, the hard riffs that Cronin helped carve out for Segall’s Slaughterhouse are only a touchpoint on MCII. The record continuously expands and contracts with new sounds and moods as Cronin fills his shell with slide guitars, piano keys, and violins; all of which add color without distracting from the overall experience.
Bookended by a gentle piano melody, incredible opening track “Weight” is a microcosm of the entire album. The lyrics are pensive yet accessible, the instrumentation is layered and vivid and the style shifts between hard rock, thoughtful ballad and everything in between. “Am I Wrong” is another early standout and one that’s reinforced by a strong Ty Segall guitar solo on the back half. Segall’s performance gets layered on top of the track’s ragtime-y piano melody, creating an interesting pairing unlikely to be heard on Segall’s follow-up to Twins. Even without Ty, “Change” is the hardest rocking song on MCII and the closest connection to Cronin’s 2011 debut material. Yet while the first half of “Change” could easily sneak onto his previous LP, the final minute shows a different face — a violin melody builds up the surrounding guitars before violently screeching underneath their pressure in the final seconds.
Cronin’s range of styles brings to mind a fairly diverse set of analogues. Heavy chorus aside, most of “See It My Way” rests on a guitar jangle reminiscent of power pop legends Big Star. “Peace of Mind” is the only breather on side A and Cronin settles into the calm with smooth vocals that recall XO-era Elliott Smith. “I’m Done Running From You” hits on the youthful urgency of Smith Westerns, and almost all of MCII has whiffs of the joyful experimentation that emanated from the Elephant 6 troupe in the ’90s.
For an album that takes chances at almost every opportunity, “Shout It Out” surprised me with what initially sounded like a cookie-cutter, soft-loud chorus over standard power chords. But as the rest of the album came into focus, “Shout It Out” no longer felt like it needed to carry the weight of innovation or push pop conventions. With softer ears the song is fun, and charming — it may not be a standout on the album, but it is an example of Cronin’s maturation as an artist comfortable with doing what feels right. On 2011′s “Again and Again,” Cronin sings, “One more time and I’ll think it over… one more time and I’ll fuck it over.” For all of its bells, whistles, and ambition, MCII could have been an over-produced, over-tweaked mess of a record. Thankfully, with Cronin’s confidence there’s no need to think it over, and with his talent, there’s no chance of fucking it up.