Todd Gautreau's latest offering as Crushed Stars is his haziest yet, but with vibrant dashes of detail and optimism.
Over his previous releases as Crushed Stars, Todd Gautreau has rendered his songs increasingly diaphanous, letting meaning give way to mood, specificity to hazy memory. On In the Bright Rain, his push toward sonic impressionism results in an outright musical alternate reality, sparse in detail and heavy on reverb. Regions like this are hardly unheard of in pop music. In fact, it's probably just a short drive to the foggy terrain glimpsed on In the Bright Rain from the dream-logic landscapes of R.E.M.'s Murmur and the Church's Starfish. In the Bright Rain doesn't quite reach the heights of those landmarks, but it's not for lack of establishing a distinctive otherworldliness of its own.
Like the other Crushed Stars releases, In the Bright Rain feels like a work of auteurism, but Gautreau has some key accomplices, most notably recording partner Stuart Sikes and drummer Jeff Ryan (St. Vincent, War on Drugs). Ryan's understated beats often serve as the tether that keeps these ethereal songs from floating away like the mysterious, nighttime "Color Kites" in Gautreau's dreams. "Color Kites" is about as musically elaborate as In the Bright Rain gets, with Gautreau's spartan template of dual clean guitars, bass, piano/keyboard, drums, and heavily echoed vocals given a slight assist by Buffi Jacobs' stately cello line, some bells by Ryan, and a brief appearance by a quiet percussion loop.
In other words, Gautreau (who recorded most of In the Bright Rain himself) creates this immersive experience with startling economy. There's no clutter here, no gratuitous tracks of percussion or barely audible frills that grant most modern recordings the illusion of size. You can discern every strum and arpeggio, every repeated piano chord, every guitar lick. Each part is given weight not through instrumental showiness, but through clarity and ample room to ring out. This is all space, no clamor.
The airy simplicity follows through to Gautreau's subject matter, if one can truly call the content here to possess "aboutness" in the strictest sense. Of course, most bets are off when lyrics are as indiscernible as they are for stretches of In the Bright Rain. Gautreau may record his instrumental parts for clarity, but his delivery, alternately Nick Drake hush and Richard Butler breathiness, often get lost in the fog of echo, a not particularly problematic quality for such a somnambulant set of tunes. When certain key lines cut through the haze, they're like accent colors on a black and white photograph.
Gautreau has said that In the Bright Rain was his attempt to make a more universal album with a brighter outlook and, despite the sleepy, melancholy sound, the light shines through. "Leave Town" may not have a narrative beyond a fear of being left alone, but there's unexpected solace in "dancing in the bright rain". Gautreau may not have a story to tell about the empty suburban streets outside his "Window", but the simple fact that "it all feels different today" registers as a shut-in's consolation. On the swirling "Copenhagen", an uneasy mind races, but the small details of a dreary evening — the hum of a circuit, the sight of young dancers in "umbrella skirts" and "up-turned paisley shirts" — serve as a balm of sorts, the spiraling keyboard figure virtually a blanket to wrap yourself up in.
On Crushed Stars' cover of the late Epic Soundtracks's piano ballad "House on the Hill", Gautreau sings "I'm lost in the sound / That echoes around / The memory of yesterday / I'm not gonna stray / I'm happy to stay / 'Cause I found a place to hide away." It's an effective summary of the sound, the sentiment, and the simplicity of In the Bright Rain. Most foul-weather albums force their cloudiness upon you. This one comforts.