Maybe we should have seen this coming. After all, Mikal Cronin began his debut album four years ago with some stacked a cappella harmonies, like a precocious, young Brian Wilson. And two years ago, his second album, "MCII," opened with a lively solo piano bit leading to a bubbly pop song that could have almost been prime Elton John. So why would we be surprised to drop the proverbial needle on “Turn Around,” the opener of the new "MCIII" (Merge), and hear a lush, soaring string section?
With a couple dozen singles, EPs and albums in his own name and in various bands and collaborations, Cronin has already covered a lot of musical ground. And he’s just 29. But on his latest solo album, he not only gives us some delightful surprises, but seems to be fully coming into his own.
Still, no matter what Cronin has done, he’s often typecast as a garage-rocker, just like Ty Segall, his longtime pal and frequent co-conspirator. They’re sort of a pair of Southern California Jack Whites: DIY polymaths for whom spirit has always been paramount over polish, even when buffed with strings, arranged by Cronin himself. And whether punk aggression or pop sentiment, the spirit is very Southern Californian. Just listen to the layered pop waves, and layered emotions, on “Feel Like.” It’s closer to Fleetwood Mac than to Black Flag.
But neither Fleetwood Mac nor Black Flag — nor Jack White, for that matter — has done anything quite like “Circle,” the six-part song cycle that makes up "MCIII’s" second half. It’s not the unfolding majesty of "Abbey Road" or anything, but it’s bracingly sweeping on its own terms. The songs trace a period of Cronin’s youth in which he left Laguna Beach, where he grew up, to go to school in the Northwest and found himself isolated and uncertain, exacerbated by intense pain from a back injury.