There's a sense of optimism to Eastern that, by all logic, shouldn't be there. This is a record with a big sound, with gorgeous pop hooks, with meticulous production choices -- all while its songs are fueled by life in post-9/11 New York and the dissolution of two marriages.
OK, so it isn't exactly a happy album, but it also doesn't reek of blackhearted poison and bile. Gingersol's leaders Seth Rothschild and Steve Tagliere have a lot to work through (especially those failed marriages, which drive nearly the entire album), but like Wilco's recent work, Gingersol's albums have a way of carrying you along even if you don't want to get "bogged down" in the words.
In fact, Wilco's an over-used but useful reference point for Gingersol's sound. The similarities aren't overpowering, but things like the chimes of "I Tried", the electronic swirls of "Blink", or the washes of mournful strings and pedal steel floating through "Please Let Me Go" definitely subscribe to the notion of textures within textures -- and deliberate pacing -- currently being explored by Jeff Tweedy and company. Add to that Tagliere's rasp, which lies somewhere between Tweedy and Matthew Ryan, and you have a sound that definitely starts in comfortable territory.
It's that seeming sense of familiarity, though, that threatens to let Eastern slip by unnoticed. It's a subtle record, and really takes a number of listens to firmly get its hooks into the listener. The arrangements aren't daring, Rothschild's and Taglier's vocals don't careen around in "watch me" style, and the emotions slowly unfold. It's not for those with short attention spans. The disc's closer, "Empty Canteen", is a perfect example as it basks in gentle organ tones, drops back to unaccompanied voices for a few bars, brings the organ back again, and then slowly winds down on clockwork guitars. This happens over eight-and-a-half minutes, and it never feels like Gingersol are just piddlin' around. Similarly, the disc's other long track, "None of My Friends", stands in place over a bed of shushed drums for nearly three minutes before flowering into a full-band arrangement.
Another good reason to give Eastern time, though, is the lyrics, which initially have a slightly skewed meaning-for-only-the-songwriter vibe. But there you are, listening to "Rome's Behind Us but the World is Round", and a line like "Rome burns behind us you're running fast / Slow down here comes your past" clicks in your brain and sticks. Or "I'm afraid I'll keep sinking / In your eyes I'm already shrinking / Promise that you'll notice when I'm gone" from "The Longest Word". Or "For better or worse should mean there's better / 'Til death do us part should mean we're one deader" from "I Did". Both Tagliere's and Rothchild's lyrics initially seem like they're skirting the issues, clouding things in generalizations, and then a phrase will cut through like a honed and sharpened blade.
"Empty Canteen" ends Eastern with a list of things that aren't feared ("I'm not afraid to stand out / I'm not afraid to blend in / I'm not afraid to change plans", etc.). It's the perfect ending to Eastern, especially after the soul-searching that's gone before. The band's own tongue-in-cheek term, "happy-choly", is also the perfect description of the neat trick Rothschild and Tagliere pull off on Eastern: working through their problems without turning things into a pity party. Eastern throws longtime fans a slight curve by ditching the band's Crazy Horse flavors, but for existing fans and newcomers alike, it's well worth checking out for a good dose of intelligent, thoughtful, rootsy rock.