Albums, Music, The Revue — August 14, 2017 at 5:35 am

The Districts – ‘Popular Manipulations’ (album review)

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The “Leader of the Free World” utters threats like “fire and fury” as part of his foreign policy approach. Meanwhile at home, he refuses to call overt acts of racism and hate for what they are. One of music’s biggest stars was in court to defend herself as a victim of sexual assault. And each day, countless number of young people struggle for acceptance in a world that increasingly determines their worth by their physical attributes and social media followers. To call these times strange would be an understatement; trying to make sense of everything would require several doctorate dissertations. However, four young men barely old enough to legally order alcohol are helping us understand this world – or at least its struggles and chaos. The Districts are that band, and their third album, Popular Manipulations, is their thesis to us.

From their beginnings, the quartet from Lititz, Pennsylvania, separated themselves from the masses with their blues-rock style and smart, thoughtful songwriting. From political and social commentary to articulating the dilemmas experienced by today’s youth, The Districts explained what it was like to be a young American. Their 2012 debut album, Telephone, focused on the social isolation that comes with growing up in a small town. Their 2015 LP, A Flourish and a Spoil, tackled the band’s transition to the big city (Philadelphia) and the inevitable feeling of being engulfed in its chaos and witnessing the growing divide between people. With Popular Manipulations, their scope has expanded to include the world as a whole, and their sound, too, has evolved. The end result is one of the most intelligent and meaningful albums of this year.

Taking a page out of Wolf Parade’s playbook – namely Spencer Krug’s offerings – The Districts have become a little darker, their sound harder, and the songwriting more emotionally engaged. Lead single, “Ordinary Day”, gave the first indication of their turn to early and mid-2000s indie rock and the LP’s focus. Through the reverb-drenched guitars and jack-hammer rhythms, frontman Rob Grote repeats, “Covering miles in a broken car / Covered in gold and kicking through the bellyache”, to describe one’s alienation from the world.

The explosive “Violet” continues down this same path. Echoing the anthemic and creative artistry of Wolf Parade’s At Mount Zoomer, a nervous energy quivers throughout this song about dependency, sex, and possessiveness. While Violet may be the protagonist, we are the antagonists who have caused her to fall. It is a brilliant piece of songwriting by Grote, who outdoes himself on “If Before I Wake”. Commencing pensively, the number slowly builds into a brooding, menacing, lights-out rocker. The approach provides the perfect canvas for Grote’s lyrics that focus on a person waking up to a changed, dystopian world. Everything around her is in ruins, as Grote describes:

Thunder woke me up,
It was storming in the city
I was suddenly wide awake
Sitting in the darkness but my eyes they hadn’t adjusted
I was on my own, on my own
I still find it scary lightning could start a fire
Bricks and mortar might not survive
Would you start to miss me, would start to miss me?
Or am I all alone?
No, I’m just a narcissist.

While “If Before I Wake” is reflective, “Point” is visionary. Nancy may be the person of interest, but the song has a political slant and perfectly describes the current climate.

The edge is a game of constant balance
In every game of cat and mouse
One gets fed, one gets bitten
The point is besides the point now!

This theme that life is a game and we are the pawns is repeated on other tracks. The exhilarating, heart-pounding “Salt” is the anthem for the overworked and those constantly seeking approval while the languid “Airplane” is the downward spiral into despair and even depression. Under the shadow of a stark acoustic guitar and a pulsating bass drum, “Why Would I Wanna Be” contemplates the struggle with being the person others want at the expense of one’s happiness.

The most relatable and revealing number is “Fat Kiddo”. Through the veneer of a beautifully brooding indie-rock approach, The Districts narrate a story of the one kid who is picked on because of what he looks like. The song is so much more, though, as the band challenges our notions of beauty, acceptance, religion, and humanity. “Everyone in prostration / Are we faking God tucks her in?“, the band asks.

The closer, “Will You Please Be Quiet Please?”, which is akin to Spencer Krug’s solo work as Moonface, unleashes a maelstrom of grit and quiet intensity. It is the song of a person who has seen and experienced it all. This person is Nancy, Violet, the Fat Kiddo, the man living in a dystopian world, and the girl driving the broken car. “Mother I’m scared of what I know”, hollers Grote with a weakened voice. All his mother can say is, “Hush oh, hush now baby. Hush your mind”. This world isn’t what we use to know, and maybe we should just close our eyes and hope it all passes.

Or maybe, as The Districts have revealed on their dissertation of short stories, we should do more. Take action to ensure the Nancys of the world can live her dreams. That the Violets don’t have to succumb to the pressures of her peers. Take steps to ensure the Fat Kiddos are treated as equals. If we fail to act, then we’re no better than the Tweeter of the Free World. We are all just narcissists.

Popular Manipulations is out now via Fat Possum. It’s available on the usual streaming and purchasing sites, including Bandcamp.

The Districts are Rob Grote (vocals/guitar), Conor Jacobus (bass), Braden Lawrence (drums), and Pat Cassidy (guitar).

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