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Mikal Cronin - Mikal Cronin

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Artist: Mikal Cronin

Album: Mikal Cronin

Label: Trouble in Mind

Review date: Sep. 27, 2011

When confronted with graduating from college in the middle of a recession and returning to a hometown they most likely want and/or need to escape, twentysomethings often turn to music. After four-plus years of exposure to college rock and Mediafire, it’s easy to continue with the sappy shit without really skipping a beat. When the going gets tough, the tough usually get the newest Sub Pop release.

It’s a rarity, though, when kids successfully switch from absorbing listlessness to transmitting it themselves. That’s the case for Mikal Cronin, who takes these circumstances and makes something of it that is big and varied and hyperactive. Not that this debut is Cronin’s first rodeo. While his classmates were doing keg stands or quoting Zizek, Cronin was doing time with The Moonhearts and Ty Segall’s live band. Playing with two acts on the better side of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum paid dividends for him in a couple ways. First, he knows his way around a melody. And second, it gives him access to Segall, Charlie Moonheart, even John Dwyer.

Dwyer shows up on Cronin’s opener “Is It Alright” in one of the most unlikely roles — a flutist, of all things — on one of the more unlikely ways to introduce one’s self to the world. In just a couple minutes, Cronin bolts through Buddy Holly, Brian Wilson and George Harrison before spiraling out of control into the strange space between The Velvet Underground and the first ‘77 punks. If you’re thinking that this is a pretty high ratio of referentiality, it is. And if you’re dubious of that, good for you. So am I.

Here’s the difference. Instead of merely imitating his way to notoriety, side job fortune, and a daytime slot on the first day of a three-day music festival, Cronin’s appropriation is a sign of desperation. It’s a fractured person’s attempt at some kind of reconstructive therapy, trying to force the pieces together into an arrangement that makes sense. Essentially, we’re watching him try on a bunch of different outfits, all of which are too small, too zany, or too much. The pastiche of “Is It Alright” sets up the operating procedure for the album, and what follows alternates between therapy and a beautiful breakdown.

The therapy is the weaker element here, mostly because of how inert the ideas are. “Hold On Me” is a perfectly pretty song, a classic ‘50s slow dance that’s been done and done over the past few years by nearly every band in Cronin’s San Francisco cohort. And “Slow Down” conflates markedly emotional organ sounds with real emoting. Both songs are lobotomized, relying on pure imitation instead of reconstruction.

Luckily for us, perhaps sadistically so, the rest of the album barrels through all manner of distress, almost always concluding in a crash deserving of someone much beyond his years. He keeps company with the cream of the freak-out artist bandleaders: shades of Cedric Bixler-Zavala appear on “Green and Blue,” Isaac Brock on “Apathy,” and Max Bemis on “Get Along.” Again, a lot of names, but it’s all in the name of working out the shape of it all.

It’s a convenient cliché that is usually a stand-in for ambivalence, on the part of both the artist and the critic, but once again, Cronin is not the typical indie-songwriter. The most exhilarating and inventive bit of writing isn’t the coming together of the recognizable pieces of each song, but the way that he consistently allows them to self-destruct and fly apart in increasingly unexpected codas. If you thought the flute-core at the end of “Is It Alright” was out there, just wait for the free-jazz skronk that closes out “Apathy” or the redline fury of “Gone.” And then you get to the end of the line: “The Way Things Go” is a fitting counterpoint to “Is It Alright,” imbued from the get-go with the finality and fatalism of rolling video game credits, or a fade to black. The final crack up is a lunatic gesture, as the lilting melody begins echoing and layering on top of itself, as if someone had turned on all the radios in the house.

Mikal Cronin‘s ending elicits empathy, which is a bit ironic considering Cronin insists he wants nothing of it. “I don’t want apathy / I don’t want empathy,” he sings on the album’s single, “Apathy.” He just wants to be left alone. In that sense, this is a real bedroom project: not the kind made by a kid with a MacBook and a sampler, but one that is generated from private feelings and a sense of isolation. Be glad that Cronin is willing to open the door enough to let you see inside. But be relieved that you don’t have to live there.

By Evan Hanlon

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