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Despite being a prominent member of a rapidly expanding California garage-psych scene, including fronting punk band The Moonhearts, most people gained their first exposure to Mikal Cronin as a collaborator and touring bassist with golden child Ty Segall. However, perceptions of Mikal quickly changed in 2011 after Chicago based Trouble In Mind Records released his self-titled debut. The album was a critical hit thanks in part to Mikal’s strong understanding of musical theory and willingness to completely embrace pop sensibilities. Although the albums sound was largely grounded in the same garage-psych sound as his contemporaries, the album clearly featured an extra level of sophistication unique to the scene at the time. Mikal’s reputation as a pop mastermind continued to grow with the release of his second album MCII as he began to expand and evolve his unique sound. MCII saw the introduction of more lush arrangements, which largely replaced the psych rock freak outs from his debut. Additionally, MCII was a much more personal and anecdotal album than its predecessor, as Mikal expressed his feelings of uncertainty and doubt with great precision. Although the progression from his self-titled debut to MCII was not massive, or incredibly surprising, it was just enough to keep the sound fresh, and ahead of its contemporaries. The progression between MCII and MCIII is largely reminiscent of Mikal’s earlier progression, as he continues to add new elements, instrumentation and structures in order to both keep his sound fresh and evolve as an artist.
The most immediate example of Mikal’s evolution as an artist can be heard on the entirety of the album’s second half, which acts as a six-part mini concept album. The excellent six-song cycle, entitled Circle is a self-proclaimed coming of age story generally centered around Mikal’s departure to college, in addition to an incredible back injury, and the ensuing emotions and discoveries involved with the two events.
While the first half of MCIII is by no means impersonal, the level of honesty and openness during the album’s second half is astonishing. Despite the omnipresent sound of sunshine, lyrically the songs continue to provide an excellent look into the thoughts and emotions surrounding Mikal’s journey. The real force of Circle however is seen in its instrumentation, which is Mikal’s most varied and well arranged to date. The introduction “i) Alone” begins with horns and strings that sound directly from a Disney movie, and gives way to a tender, French-horn accompanied acoustic ballad. However, the songs tension gradually builds to a crescendo led by a furious fuzzed guitar similar to MCII closer “Piano Mantra”. The follow-up track, “ii) Gold” is a power-pop gem which gives way to a tzoura led jam which would sound at home on Mikal’s debut. “iii) Control” is a tender, largely acoustic based pop track that offers listeners a quick breath of fresh air before the cycle’s standout track “iv) Ready”.
Although all of MCIII carries a distinct Mikal Cronin sound, most songs lean a bit more towards power-pop than his previous roots as a garage artist, which allows the garage rocker “iv) Ready” to shine amidst the rest of the record. The driving drums and guitars create a sound reminiscent of Mikal’s self-titled debut, especially the mid-song guitar break. There is another welcome reprieve following the energy of “iv) Ready”, as a string-quartet provides the framework for one of the albums most beautiful moments in “v) Different”. The cycle and album come to a triumphant close with the optimistic, life-affirming and incredibly catchy “vi) Change”. The combination of lively acoustic guitar and easy going piano provide for a great and upbeat ending, as well as further proof of the pop mastery of Mikal Cronin.
While Circles is the real centerpiece of the album the first half of MCIII is also a wonderful piece of music. Album opener “Turn Around” immediately introduces listeners to Mikal’s new sonic range, as the sound of strings is immediately present. The end result is a sound that can only be compared to a more sophisticated and poppy version of sound established on MCII. In fact, the idea of a sonically expanded, poppier version of MCII runs through each track on the album’s first half. Second track “Made My Mind Up” uses an infectious guitar riff and solo to create a power-pop gem that sounds like it could have been written by Big Star. First half standout “Say” is another excellent power-pop track which uses a subtle saxophone to create the albums most powerful chorus. Further the power of the song is amplified by a simple, yet effective mid-song guitar solo, as well as a more elaborate, sax accompanied solo later in the track. One of the best features of Mikal’s albums is his ability to effectively sequence songs, a point well exemplified with “Feel Like”, which provides a brief breather from the surging “Say” before ultimately reverting back into another classic power-pop track, complete with a lush string arrangement. The power-pop fury of “Feels Like” gives way to the albums best track, the tender ballad “I’ve Been Loved”. A main reason for Mikal has developed a name for himself within the current garage climate is his ability to craft emotional, heartfelt ballads. Similar to “Don’t Let Me Go” off MCII, “I’ve Been Loved” does an excellent job of acting as the album’s emotional centerpiece. The song features an acoustic guitar, string quartet and Mikal’s strongest vocals to produce not only a spectacular ballad, but also a bookend to the wonderful first half of the album.
Mikal Cronin’s third release as a solo artist is his most confident, complete and enthralling release yet. The precise implementation of new musical ideas and instruments create an added layer of depth into Mikal’s already sophisticated power pop sound. Further, the epic 6-part mini concept album Circles helps keep the album fresh, as it is allows Mikal to explore a unique musical structure. Mikal’s ability to combine unique elements of music has continuously evolved throughout his career, and MCIII is a great indication of his ability. The future of Mikal Cronin’s career is incredibly exciting as with every release he continues to slowly reveal more and more of his pop genius.