Born from the same freak scene that immaculately conceived prolific front men like John Dwyer and Ty Segall, the more unassuming Mikal Cronin—who has long collaborated with his pal Segall, both live and on record—has been just as keen on playing both master and puppets with his solo work. Beginning with his great 2011 self-titled debut, which is finely polished with the same West Coast garage scuzz his contemporaries bathe in, Cronin has played most (if not all) of the instruments on his albums. And though he still fills the majority of the first chairs on the new MCIII, the record is so awash in its own lushness—occasionally sounding like the orchestra pit of strings and horns Merge has on retainer has tripled in size—that it seems unimaginable even the most versatile songwriter could cram that many music stands into a practice space.
The extravagance shouldn’t come as a surprise when considering the path paved by its predecessor, 2013’s MCII. That album was less a departure for Cronin than a revelation, with gnarly, delay-choked guitar yowls recast as aching, earnest acoustic-guitar yarns. MCII doesn’t not sound like Mikal Cronin; it just sounds like a wiser one (“coming of age” would be a pretty cliché descriptor if the lyrics weren’t so openly wistful). And MCIII features even more indie-rock wrinkles.
From the get-go on opener “Turn Around,” strings swoosh through and around and under a spinning top of acoustic guitar and piano—it’s much closer in sonic quality to the breaking of waves on a desolate white-sand shoreline than the thrashing of a Slip ‘N Slide at a sweaty, overcrowded all-day backyard party. And luckily the preciousness and overt eclecticism of the record is often offset by Cronin’s penchant to wild out on a shredder track like “Say,” which deteriorates into a battle of solar guitar riffs and squealing horns flattening one another.
The B-side of MCIII is presented as a mini-concept album with a “what it all means” directive that Cronin followed when he left California for school and the Pacific Northwest. “II) Gold” and “IV) Ready” are vintage head-bangers that sound less like yearning and more like straight-ahead, blown-out rock ’n’ roll—though the stark, all-strings “Different,” which features Cronin at his most vulnerable, builds a nice bridge between the record’s two distinct halves. Still, the album’s all-in vibe and ambitious load of instrumentation—a tzouras Cronin picked up while on tour in Greece is worked in for good measure—actually makes MCIII feel less gratifying than its more candid, and thus tangible, predecessor. Because though it’s tempting, adding loads of toppings to a dish usually means it’s coming out of the oven at least slightly undercooked.