For a dude hailing from one of America’s foremost coastal destinations, SoCal fuzz rocker Mikal Cronin came across as lost in the surf of twentysomething uncertainty on his 2013 record, MCII, even as brilliant sunshine washed over his tunes musically. On his third solo album MCIII, the 29-year-old from Laguna Beach revisits his bumpy introduction into adulthood almost a decade ago via a six-song, mini-concept B-side that deploys cinematic strings, majestic horns and hair-raising guitar solos to illuminate his struggles as he moved from home to attend college in the Pacific Northwest. His tales about aimless nighttime drives in search of control, his misgivings toward winter dreariness and the loneliness inherent in striking out in foreign lands illustrate his doubts in an electrifying and universal light that connects him, more than ever, with his listeners.

MCIII’s final six songs raise the question: why not go all-in on the “coming of age” storyline instead of starting with five unrelated songs before switching midstream? This is not an indictment of the five songs on the record’s A-side. Cronin dresses the opening tracks with bright choruses amid arrangements that evoke melancholy and mania, befitting his earlier releases. It’s precisely when he ditches the present for his past that the album soars.

On the B-side, Cronin not only expands the framework from which he creates his solo material (i.e., adding horns and strings) but also takes another step in removing himself from Bay Area rocker Ty Segall’s shadow. In addition to his solo exploits, Cronin plays bass in Segall’s band. Whereas Segall’s “grip it and rip it” reputation involves playing and releasing music at a breakneck pace, Cronin’s approach aims for a more calculated and pristine result. His mini-concept record, even if it begged for a larger treatment, shows he is starting to come around to the idea of taking risks. (Hell, he even appears to have chopped off his trademark shoulder-length brunette locks, if Merge’s website is to be believed.)

The album’s centerpiece, “Alone,” begins the B-side portion with cinematic strings, a strummed acoustic guitar and Cronin’s shaky proclamation, “I’m not alone…,” all of which act as a clear dividing line between Side A and Side B. Horns join the procession after the first verse, underscoring the changing seasons Cronin describes. He unleashes a towering guitar crescendo following the second verse, providing a torch amid the dark. And what’s more, Cronin played all instruments on the record except strings and horns.

Elsewhere among the B-sides, “Gold” and “Ready” provide healthy doses of testosterone-driven rock ’n’ roll that would please Cronin’s old pal Segall. “Gold” transitions from what sounds like a sitar during its final third to a pummeling exit and final verbal release of “Fuck the pain, let it go.” “Circle” and “Control” both sail along on melody rather than aggression and “Different,” the album’s shortest track at just over two minutes, offers a delicate window into Cronin’s vulnerable mind.

A-side track “Say” showcases three hallmarks found throughout Cronin’s solo work—melodies that sound as if they were gliding atop clouds, lyrics searching for life’s answers and blistering guitar solos. “Turn Around” is another standout, launching the record with a sense of pageantry and sweep.

This winter Cronin will turn 30. For even the most self-assured, the end of one decade and the start of another can lead down a rabbit hole of questions. Cronin is no different. If his quest for answers is anything like the songs he produced on MCIII, particularly its mini-concept album, he might be pleasantly surprised with what he discovers.

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