By Micael Lonergan
Full disclosure: I am unapologetically sympathetic to The Districts. My investment in the Pennsylvania four-piece followed close behind the 2012 release of their second EP While You Were in Honesdale, and while they have yet to return to the acoustic tone of those three tracks, they have remained my best-loved band for five consecutive years (which might be cheating given the considerable stylistic adjustments that come with each album).
The band’s first EP Kitchen Songs, released in 2011, can be cleanly defined as blues-tinged indie rock. The work goes largely undiscussed, but is fairly impressive whether or not you consider the fact that they were about 16 when it was created. Their next project came in early 2012 as a debut full-length titled Telephone. The album revealed a softening of the intense roots rock present in Kitchen Songs, but still confirmed the bluster and conviction of Rob Grote’s vocals to be the band’s calling card. The Districts signed with Fat Possum records in 2013, released their self-titled third EP in 2014 and issued their first on-label LP, A Flourish and a Spoil, in 2015. The breakthrough album embraced a sense of fuzz-pop, grunge and thoughtful folk. It presented a large leap in style and cohesion and offered a heart-wrenching dynamic between the boys’ swelling sound and Grote’s crashing words. Despite it all, the lake of reviews that surrounded the album was luke-warm.
The general consensus among critics has been that the band has always possessed something attractive, but lacks the inspiring touch to surpass the status of four high school buddies on the brink of the basement scene. Conversation around the group’s most recent album holds a different tone: enthusiasm and gentle endorsement. The dominant idea is that this is the album where they come into their own, define their individuality and exhibit newfound maturity, which fits pretty well with the album’s context. Since the release of A Flourish and a Spoil, the boys’ personal lives have been engulfed by an almost year-round dedication to the road. The experience has both illuminated and torched their relationships which has resulted in an album bathed in themes of anxiety, loneliness, possession, separation and manipulation.
While a change in content makes sense and could be organic, the accompanying noise seems almost solely designed to placate reviewers. Popular Manipulations is an arena-soaked arrangement glutted with heavy choruses that warp what once resembled the best of drone-rock into slightly dishonest garage anthems (I’m looking at you, “Point”). There is something to admire about the mechanics of the electric charge, shoegaze swirl and storm-ridden ambiance of the piece, but the way it aspires to swallow you whole falls short and leaves the entire thing in a very awkward place. The roar and wreck of The Districts’ past releases have always come forth with uncut energy. Blame it on the extra synths, blame it on the experimental falsetto, blame it on road exhaustion; the album lacks the authenticity they are so clearly capable of providing.
The Pennsylvania four-piece has been regularly referred to as “promising,” but I have always held them as the promised. To see them deliver a bloodless album is heartbreaking. Nevertheless, I maintain faith in The Districts. Maybe my expectations were too high; judge it for yourself, Popular Manipulations is due out August 11 via Fat Possum Records.