The Eastern Sea isn’t the first band to find inspiration in Albert Camus. The Cure famously based “Killing an Arab” on “The Stranger;” Titus Andronicus named a song after the writer/philosopher; and the Magnetic Fields used him as a bit of a punch line in a tune. But Austin’s the Eastern Sea has perhaps the greatest sonic tip to Camus, as frontman Matthew Hines titled his band’s album “Plague,” after a Camus novel, and then proceeded to write songs from his own life to match its themes.
“I read a lot of Camus on this tour and they were really inspiring,” he says. “It touched on the human condition and what humans are pressed to do when under extreme duress. In that case it’s deadly. It goes from deadly to annoying. Our record doesn’t have those huge stakes, it’s not life and death. But it’s still about things that take control over you and leave you powerless.”
So it is that “Plague” — whose release the band will celebrate with a show Friday at Mango’s — begins with its title track, a plaintive, almost casual, piece that feels out of sorts with what is to come. It’s a prologue that states the themes and serves as formal notice of what’s to come. Such an approach is lofty, and “Plague” rises to its aspirations: It’s a thoughtful and kaleidoscopic recording that offers further rewards with replay, its instrumentation a colorful and varied ecosystem of indie rock and folk and chamber pop. There’s also a gentle but persistent pulse throughout the album, often accentuated by the xylophone, which has a peculiar but logical root. “That really comes down to listening to old Bruce Springsteen,” Hines says. “Listen to ‘Born to Run’ and the entire melody is played on a little hand-bell kit.”
This approach is emblematic of the Eastern Sea’s approach: making the minor matter. The instrumentation is applied to songs that stop and start with all sorts of tempo shifts and pieces that fluctuate between celebratory and introspective, which Hines likens to “a paragraph shift in a novel.”
Not surprisingly, travel and time are two things that grip Hines’ attention as a lyricist. “Do the years go by for you like mine in Texas,” he sings.
“The heart of that record is that idea,” he says. “Do things change for you like they change for me. If they did, maybe we can know each other better. Maybe we can know who we are a little better. That comes from ‘The Plague.’ There are songs on there about how we change and grow apart and others about how we change and grow closer.”
With references to a taxi, a trolley and a train in three different songs, there’s a sense of movement. Some of that reflects changes within the band. Hines left Houston for Austin several years ago and started the band, which released two lovely EPs. He’s also a committed traveler, finding inspiration in places as far flung as Peru and China.
These places offer visual cues. But they also contain a certain mystery that appeals to Hines. “China Untitled, 1,” he says is one of the older songs. “There was this mix of weird miscommunication and culture shock,” he says. “We stayed in this hotel on the sixth floor and were told nobody was on the seventh. But every night we’d hear furniture scraping on the linoleum. Every night. Maybe it was a cleaning crew. But there were scraping and pounding noises, yet they insisted no one was there. So you take that to its extreme and delve into some fantasy. What if it’s ourselves trying to tell us something?”
The “foreign tongue” Hines sings about on “Plague” is perhaps the over-arching theme of the recording. Asked about breakdowns in communication he laughs and responds, “I would say out of the 100 percent of the problems I have in my life, maybe 90 percent come down to bad communication or misunderstanding. A lot of my music is me coming to an understanding of that reality.
“And I think it’s important that it’s me speaking that way. It’s a popular cultural norm in pop music to have a narrator you can’t necessarily rely on. But I don’t want that as part of my music. I want people to rely on me, but to understand I’m just a person. I don’t want them to think I’m unreliable, but to understand I’m capable of mistakes. That’s what I hope these songs get across.”
The Eastern Sea
With Vox and the Hound
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Mango’s, 403 Westheimer
Tickets: $5 at the door or free with purchase of “Plague” at Cactus Music
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth