Photo by Amanda Koellner
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
The last few years have been kind to the San Francisco garage rock scene. What started with DIY albums made with Tascam tape recorders has blossomed into a full-on musical movement. Acts like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, and White Fence have won people over with their grimy licks and infectious live performances. But among all these groups, there’s been a secret weapon lurking in the background, and his name is Mikal Cronin.
It’s not like Cronin has really been hiding. He just started to get more attention in 2013 when he dropped his excellent sophomore album, MCII. Pulling back the fuzz just a smidgen allowed us to see his masterful songwriting chops. His bachelor’s degree in music from California Institute of the Arts gives him an exceptionally varied skill set, and he’s put it to good use, using the wide array of instruments at his disposal. To get the full picture of Cronin as a musician, it’s important to not just look at the work he’s done under his own name, but also how he’s supported others. With his upcoming third album, MCIII, out next week, there’s no better time to revisit and sort through those many roles — both in the background and center stage behind a mic. Here’s Mikal Cronin in 10 songs.
Bass Line Of Death
Ty Segall Band – “Wave Goodbye” (2012)
It’s not too common that the bass gets the first word in on a track, but it’s hard to imagine “Wave Goodbye” starting any other way. For all the holy-shit-roll-your-eyes-back-into-your-head-awesome guitar solos on the song, it’s Cronin’s slow and menacing bass line that gives the song the punch it needs. It’s a dirge of a riff, feeling like it’s announcing the apocalypse. He accomplishes so much with so little.
Understated and Elevating
Shannon and the Clams – “In the River” (2013)
Cronin doesn’t always find himself in the middle of a fuzz-rock jam. On Shannon and the Clams’ “In the River”, he jumps into the band’s surfy, doo-wop vibes on the saxophone. His role is understated, blending in with the percussion and wavering among the dreamy vocals. It’s one of the things he does best: elevating the rest of the band without drawing too much attention to himself.
Psychedelic Saxophone Jams
Thee Oh Sees – “Put Some Reverb on My Brother” (2014)
Just because Cronin takes his sax skills to other genres doesn’t mean he won’t bring it into his garage rock world. On Thee Oh Sees’ last album, Drop, he stops in with his woodwind in tow several times. With “Put Some Reverb on My Brother”, however, he really gets to flourish. The horn intertwines with frontman John Dwyer’s psychedelic guitar lines for some twisted effects.
Bringing Out What’s Already There
White Fence – “Raven on White Cadillac” (2014)
White Fence may be the greasiest of the greasy garage rockers. Throwing in a bit of honky-tonk piano into the mix only adds to the image. Cronin injects a dose of liveliness with his dexterous piano playing on “Raven on White Cadillac”. There are already hints of twang in the song, but his cartoony playing only helps bring it out even more.
Cinema Friendly Unit Shifter
Ty Segall – “The Singer” (2014)
Cronin doesn’t play the strings on Ty Segall’s Manipulator, but he did arrange them. The addition of a string trio to the record helped make Segall’s grand vision even clearer. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “The Singer”. It takes an already lovely song, with Segall delivering a gorgeous falsetto performance, and makes it feel film-ready. Apply the right amount of campiness (this is a foray into glam rock, after all), and the track just soars. If he ever gets tired of playing rock music, there could be a future in film scoring for Cronin.
Mikal Cronin – “Gone” (2010)
And so we finally get to tracks bearing the man’s own name! “Gone” is Cronin’s first official solo release on record that’s not billed as a collaboration with someone else. With slowly picked guitar that launches into a stomping beat, this lo-fi recording is a precursor to sensibilities that will make themselves even clearer down the road. So much is obscured with the muddy mix (he’d later rerecord the song for his self-titled debut), but there’s no hiding those bright melodies and moody breakdowns.
Music Nerd Freak-Outs
Ty Segall & Mikal Cronin – “Reverse Shark Attack” (2009)
As already seen, Cronin and Segall have an extensive musical history with one another. Their 2009 collaboration, Reverse Shark Attack, is an artifact of their ongoing bromance. The record as a whole may be one of the more abrasive and distorted records in either songwriter’s discography, with songs flying by at rapid rates — that is, until the epic closing title track. It’s a story of love and loss, with Cronin singing as an older man plotting revenge on the sharks that killed his wife. It’s the perfect framework for Segall and Cronin to indulge their every whim with mournful horn arrangements, fuzz freak-outs, and even a musical shout-out to Dick Dale’s version of “Misirlou”.
Punk Rock Frontman
Moonhearts – “Eat My Shorts” (2010)
Moonhearts, aka Charlie and the Moonhearts, were one of many obscure San Francisco groups Cronin played in, but one of the few that he fronted. As the bassist and vocalist for Moonhearts, he was able to embrace the entire punk aesthetic. While now he’s typically more of a soft-spoken vocalist, Moonhearts saw him screaming incessantly. It’s also some of the most fun music in his prolific discography. On “Eat My Shorts”, he repeats Bart Simpson’s legendary catchphrase and ends the track telling the band that they should get some pizza. It’s another example of the lightheartedness that he’s able to draw from both lyrically and musically.
Building Suspense With Rhythm
Mikal Cronin – “Apathy” (2011)
The starting and stopping of “Apathy” is maddening on first listen. Just when it seems like a groove will kick in, Cronin’s guitar drops out. He plays with the listeners expectations, but when the full band finally does start up, it’s a cathartic moment. It’s also the emergence of Cronin’s clearer sound and production, helping him to stand out among his hard-rocking peers.
The Sentimental Poet
Mikal Cronin – “Weight” (2013)
“I’ve been starting over for a long time,” Cronin sings on the first line of the first song on his breakthrough, MCII. It’s easy to read these lyrics given the context of his rapid career, but it soon becomes clear that he’s talking about something even more personal. With arpeggiating pianos and chugging acoustic guitars, he makes his message poignant. The future is daunting and terrifying, and he’s content to be patient in the meantime. It’s a surprising revelation, given how bright his future seems. While he may be having trouble looking ahead, we’re all waiting for his next step.