Mikal Cronin - MCIII - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Mikal Cronin - MCIII

by Ethan Ranis Rating:8 Release Date:2015-05-04

Musical polymath Mikal Cronin spends virtually no time on his album titles, likely because he spends too much time writing the lyrics, arranging the elaborate orchestrations, and playing almost all the instruments on his records. Not content with producing one of the most lauded records of 2013, second album MCII (of course), Cronin makes a conscious effort to 'go big' on this new release, but the ambition leads to some mixed results. Although the album is just as tuneful and melodic as his prior efforts, it sacrifices something in immediacy and emotional impact.

The widescreen production here is a welcome shift from the mostly lo-fi stylings of the prior records. Cronin still likes to cake his guitar in layers of molten distortion, but there are serious dynamics here – the sudden hushes in the pre-chorus of ‘Made My Mind Up’ are effective at heightening suspense, bringing out the meaning in the repeated line “Just tell me when it hurts.” 

The clarity in the quieter moments, like the more placid verses of ‘Control’, just accent how loud the album can get when the distortion kicks in. The wall of sound (brass, strings, and fuzz guitar) on songs like ‘Say’ and ‘Turn Around’ makes it seem like more music is trying to fit through your speakers than is capable of passing through. However, Cronin makes the odd choice of frequently burying his vocals deeper in the mix, making it hard to hear many of his lyrics despite often double-or triple-tracking himself with harmonies.

This ties into a more serious problem with the album as a whole – the lyrics are generally unspectacular. Cronin’s effort to be the garage-rock Brian Wilson means many of these songs are apparently about loneliness, but they’re curiously opaque. ‘Feel Like’s chorus declares “I feel like I’m dying/ I feel like I’m flying from myself again,” and the blunt first line coupled with the strangeness of the second combines to be somewhat alienating. 

‘I’ve Been Loved’’s central declaration seems similarly hackneyed and nonspecific, while ‘Ready’s constant refrain of “I’m not ready for December” just sounds like whinging. However, the plainspoken nature of Cronin’s lyrics doesn’t always work against him; closer ‘Circle’s plea to “Please be all around me” could apply to friends or family, or even just nature — it’s the closest he gets to tapping into the universal in the same way as he did on the last album.

Thankfully, the music’s still pretty great. When Cronin goes full guitar god at the end of breathtaking gallop ‘Say’, it makes you feel like there’s still juice in the classic rock tank. The rollicking piano melody of opener and lead single ‘Turn Around’ is a welcoming introduction to the album. 

Some of the more baroque flourishes, such as the ostinato strings and melodramatic piano at the beginning of the six-song suite that makes up the album’s second side, seem like a wink to the listener – yes, this album is over-the-top, but it’s not lacking in self-awareness. To go along with the claims to the oddball-prodigy throne are some quirky sound effects that work their way into the mix, like the Tin Pan Alley whistling on ‘I’ve Been Loved’ and the Mountain Goats-esque tape-buzz that closes ‘Say’, but these add suitable character to the songs without being distracting.

That said, once again the ambition undermines some aspects of the music as well. Cronin’s frankly baffling decision to structure the second side as a suite, despite little musical commonality between the various songs, leads to some awkward fade-outs (the end of ‘Ready’ seems to just cut out) and creates the extra cognitive dissonance of having to piece together what exactly is being said by arranging the songs this way. It’s not entirely clear what the relation between the pieces is – perhaps it has more personal meaning to Cronin himself, but it could be easier to connect with the suite if it were just a bit more obvious. 

There’s just nothing here approaching the direct emotional punch that songs like ‘Piano Mantra’ and ‘Weight’ from MCII carried. Perhaps paring back the artifice and getting back in touch with that universality will serve Cronin better for MCIV.

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