Mikal Cronin, ‘MCII’ (review)


Read on pastemagazine.com

Mikal Cronin is a creature of his environment—sunny, foggy, fickle, evocative. Cronin is the latest export from the San Francisco psychedelic/garage scene that has yielded some of the most intriguing American rock of the past five years (Girls, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, The Fresh & Onlys). Far from formulaic, Cronin’s sophomore release, MCII, is a nuanced collage of quintessentially “California” pop songs—or, at the very least, how the rest of the country perceives such songs to look and feel.

Cronin wears many hats over the course of MCII’s 10 tracks. On “Peace Of Mind,” we meet an acoustic campfire strummer with the same sort of wet-behind-the-ears worldliness of American Beauty-era Bob Weir. On “Change,” Cronin becomes a sagging Dickies SoCal skate punk—maximum shred atop an out-of-the-box Guitar Center drone. Cronin is at once doe-eyed and contemplative, poppy and messy, inventive and derivative. He’s a seasoned musician who spent time in Ty Segall’s touring band, yet he has no qualms about utilizing elementary melodies to the best of their toe-tappery. And the record is better for it.

The album’s unabashed highlight, “Am I Wrong,” is an updated take on a single Cronin released last year as a split 7-inch with King Khan and the Shrines. It’s a mid-tempo rocker, equal parts scuzzy and harmonic. Honky-tonk piano cuts through a wall of guitars, and the chorus is both simple and memorable: “Am I wrong? I don’t think so.”

To write off MCII as merely another beach-pop record that dips a toe into grunge (or punk, or garage, or metal) is to miss the point. Yes, the May release date might be a Merge Records chess move to ensure that lead single “Shout It Out” is heard in the background of Memorial Day road trips and barbecues. But there remains just the right amount of depth to these summery sounds. Cronin’s lyrics, too, contain just the right amount of open-endedness. He asks questions that drift out into the ether and reappear as internal monologues—on a morning jog, during a shower, on a porch swing at twilight. And more often than not, as Cronin surely knows, these questions are more satisfying than their answers.

Kurt Vile, ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ (review)


Read on pastemagazine.com

In most photos, he hides his face behind his hair. Long, dark, nappy in the summer months—Kurt Vile’s wavy strands fall like drapes over the edge of his microphone. His beady eyes rarely catch a square gaze with a camera lens, an audience member or an interviewer. Through most of his career, Vile’s voice, too, was but one element of a multi-layered mix; masked.

So, when Vile sings his first line some 40 seconds into the first song on his new record, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, and when those lyrics are as clear and bright and crisp as the dawn that he describes, you know something is intrinsically different about this album. While his early releases, namely 2008’s Constant Hitmaker and 2009’s Childish Prodigy, were more a collage of loose ideas organized around a singular, murky sound, Daze presents 11 carefully composed tracks with beginnings, middles and ends.

Producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Phosphorescent, Son Volt) is back with a fresh strip of sandpaper. Agnello’s touch helped make Vile’s previous record, Smoke Ring For My Halo, one of 2011’s unexpected breakouts. On Daze, Vile’s amorphous, ambient drones continue to solidify into sharp shapes with defined edges. While he was always a contemplative songwriter, Vile’s lyrics are now more ponderous and worldly rather than navel-gazing. (He’s married and a father of two.)

Themes of movement and escape are the bedrock of this album. Vile’s dreamlike crooning on “Girl Called Alex” precedes the punchy, more direct sentiment of “Never Run Away.” With its multiple breakdowns, songs like “Pure Pain” recall the better moments of Crosby, Stills, Nash and & Young’s “Déjà Vu,” among other cornerstones of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960s and ‘70s. Subtle pedal steel swells are a welcomed addition to the live mix, more atmospheric than country or kitschy.

“There is but one true love within my heart,” he tells us on “Snowflakes Are Dancing.” It’s a continuation of a theme from Smoke Ring, wherein Vile proclaimed, “There is but one true love in my baby’s arms.” There’s a calming balance to this record—lyrically, thematically, sonically. It closes exactly as it begins, with a long, winding, peaceful melody—one of the prettiest Vile has ever penned. “In the night when all hibernate, I stay awake, searching the deep, dark depths of my soul,” he says. He describes his process of finding that one moment, the “golden” tone. It’s a beautiful song about—what else—the nature of writing a beautiful song.

Things are different now. His voice is in the foreground. His eyes meet the camera in the press photo. He’s alert, aware. Awake.