On The Eastern Sea's debut LP, Plague, frontman Matthew Hines' voice is bold and sunny. It's a smoother strain than that of Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, but Hines' lyrical concerns are darker hued. Here, the word "plague" is a metaphor for the push/pull of fate vs. free will, powerlessness vs. control. It's a credit to Hines and the band that such weighty concerns don't sink the album. Instead, finely sculpted songs filter indie-pop through warm folk melodies and prog-rock complexities.
Throughout the LP, percussion slowly builds to intricate polyrhythms, to be joined by bright keyboards, finger-picked acoustic guitars and warm, uplifting trumpets. Hines' confessional vocals slide into spoken word on the verses while choruses soar to multi-tracked bliss.
Arrangements alternate open spaces with density as tactile and luxurious as crushed velvet, particularly on the playful alt-folk/Motown mash-up "Wasn't for Love" and the '70s AM radio-pop monster "A Lie." The LP's wary love songs and pensive pop brim with acutely observed details, including "Watch the stray cats under cars/Start and stop like silhouettes."
On the bipolar title track, imagery of wild dogs howling across a frozen lake and birch leaves "rattling on the spine" border on the Nick Cave school of Goth Rock. But the heartfelt melody breathes warmth into the tune, which rises in a crescendo that is both gorgeous and gut wrenching.
With Plague, The Eastern Sea delivers a disc that is tuneful, lush, hypnotic and disturbing. The result is oddly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark": Lyrics battling darkness and self-doubt are set to music that is smooth and supremely self-assured.
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